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Governor In, Governor Out – All Normal in Rio de Janeiro

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Wilson Witzel, the currently suspended governor of Rio de Janeiro

Rio de Janeiro’s Governor Wilson Witzel has been suspended for allegedly running a corruption scheme that not only may have defrauded the state at the height of its coronavirus response but is also startlingly similar to that run by a former governor.

On August 28, Witzel was suspended from his post for an initial 180 days by Brazil’s Superior Court of Justice (Superior Tribunal de Justiça – STJ) while an investigation takes place. Witzel and a ring of associates are believed to have embezzled public funds, destined to build field hospitals around the state of Rio de Janeiro to help fight the COVID-19 outbreak.

Additionally, prosecutors found evidence that equipment for the same field hospitals was deliberately paid for at inflated prices, with the same group of suspects taking a cut.

The investigation has targeted many of Witzel’s closest allies. His wife, Helena Witzel, is also under investigation while Rio’s former health secretary, Edmar Santos, and a leading evangelical preacher and politician, Everaldo Dias Pereira, are among those arrested.

SEE ALSO: Brazil News and Profiles

Witzel received over 554,000 reais ($102,000) from a number of healthcare companies involved in developing field hospitals, with the money having been paid to his wife’s law firm between August 2019 and May 2020, according to a statement from the Attorney General’s Office. While no charges have been pressed against Witzel, prosecutors believe these funds were likely kickbacks given by the companies chosen to build the hospitals.

Having searched the couple’s records and offices, prosecutors found that Witzel had sent field hospital contracts to his wife by email and that Helena had transferred important sums of money to her husband, shortly after receiving funds from the healthcare firms.

Other allegations are swirling around the way the Rio de Janeiro government handled the coronavirus crisis. A former undersecretary of health, Gabriel Neves, was arrested in May and interrogated over the use of 1 billion reais ($185.5 million), given to companies to buy ventilators, masks and COVID-19 tests, but without any form of public bidding. His testimony allegedly reinforced suspicions against Witzel.

This investigation is part of Operation Car Wash (Lava Jato), a sweeping anti-corruption drive in Brazil that has seen a great number of influential politicians and business figures jailed, including former presidents, influential executives, and former governors of Rio de Janeiro.

A previous governor, Sergio Cabral (2007-2014), received his 14th criminal sentence in August and is now facing almost 300 cumulative years in prison.

InSight Crime Analysis

For a governor to allegedly defraud his state’s healthcare system during a pandemic that has killed over 120,000 Brazilians to date is shocking. To reportedly do so using the same type of kickback scheme that brought down Cabral would have been unwise.

On August 28, the Operation Car Wash coordinator in Rio de Janeiro, Eduardo El Hage, said prosecutors investigating Witzel felt they were taking a “trip down memory lane,” given the similarities with Cabral’s case.

“We were revisiting different facts we have already investigated, just with other people,” he said in a statement to the press.

SEE ALSO: New Index Finds Corruption Worsening Across Latin America

Cabral was first sentenced in 2017 after being found guilty of receiving kickbacks for granting building contracts to specific companies, including the renovation of Rio’s iconic Maracanã football stadium and the expansion of the city’s subway. Since then, he has faced a cavalcade of sentences for corruption, money laundering, criminal association, tax evasion. Most relevantly to Witzel’s case, he was found guilty in January 2020 of being part of a corruption scheme involving kickbacks, price-gouging and illicit tenders within Rio’s healthcare system.

The similarities between Cabral’s proven scheme and the one reportedly involving Witzel do not stop there. According to a roundup by Globo, in both cases, law firms were used to receive the illicit funds, some of the money was laundered in neighboring Uruguay and well-established security companies were used to move the cash.

Astonishingly, Witzel is the fifth governor of Rio in a row to be investigated or sentenced for corruption charges. And the series may not end with him since the man replacing him, in an interim capacity, deputy governor Claudio Castro, is also under investigation along with Witzel.

How Colombia’s Lockdown Created Ideal Conditions for Child Recruitment

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Child recruitment in Colombia has increased amid COVID-19

The systematic recruiting of minors continues to be a strategy for non-state armed actors in Colombia to bolster their numbers, with the country’s Registry of Victims (Registro Único de Víctimas) numbering 8,798 children who have been pressed into armed groups.

Youth have only become more vulnerable to such predatory tactics due to the current coronavirus lockdown, with many children, especially in remote parts of the country, having become increasing isolated. Consequently, the recruitment of minors has increased over the course of the pandemic.

InSight Crime spoke with Julia Castellanos, a researcher from the Observatory for Childhood and Conflict, which is part of the Coalition against the involvement of children and young people in Colombia’s armed conflict (Coalición contra la vinculación de niños, niñas y jóvenes al conflicto armado en Colombia – COALICO), to discuss child recruitment dynamics in the country.

InSight Crime (IC): What type of incidents linked to child recruitment do you typically find in your monitoring?

Julia Castellanos (JC): We have been monitoring different situations that present themselves across the country. There are a number of areas that severely affect children. These are attacks on the right to life of children, including homicides and injuries from landmines; violations of personal liberty, namely kidnapping; the use and recruitment of children into armed conflict, which includes attacks on schools, hospitals and other infrastructure; sexual violations, which is very difficult to understand and observe nationally due to the complexity of these crimes; and the failure to provide basic services.

Across the board, Indigenous, Afro-Colombian and rural communities have been the most affected, including during the coronavirus lockdown. The categories listed above are all laid by the United Nations Security Council in its mechanisms to prevent child recruitment. But Colombia must also deal with forced displacement and refugees. Based on statistics from the UN, at least 40 percent on average of those affected by mass displacement are children.

SEE ALSO: Colombia News and Profiles

The pandemic has made the situation far more complicated. Children can no longer go to school where they can feel safe. This has created huge risks. The schools have been designed as protective spaces, not just from recruitment into armed gangs but also from any violence in the home.

We have seen during the pandemic the problems facing children who are not in school but are staying at home, with parents often facing socio-economic difficulties and who have not been able to access even informal jobs. Armed actors have seized upon this situation as an opportunity to deceive and co-opt these children or to threaten parents to force children to join up.

IC: How do you define child recruitment? 

JC: COALICO defines child recruitment as a concrete action taken by an armed group to take away children. They give them camouflage, a weapon and establish military dynamics, placing the child in a hierarchy of command. This is then used to make young children carry out specific tasks, which can include weapons trafficking, drug trafficking or occasionally spying on other armed actors.

Unfortunately, in the last three years, we have seen armed actors practicing other forms of recruitment, especially in areas of active conflict. It has become cheaper for them for the children to stay home and to keep going to school while carrying out specific tasks for the group. This has provided criminal groups with a new type of control, extending into the private space of the child, into the community and even into the schools.

This type of dominance is often reinforced or legitimized through the consent of the parents. The parents are often in difficult economic situations so having their child in an armed group gives them a feeling of security or of protection. In some cases, families have received money, food or clothing from criminal groups that have recruited their children.

IC: How have the levels of violence against children changed, since coronavirus protection measures began in Colombia?

JC: Having to attend school virtually is very different for children in rural areas than in towns or cities. We would need a far more solid communications infrastructure for this to be viable in rural areas.

Due to this, we have noticed many violent acts against children during the lockdown. From the start of the lockdown until mid-May, we had seen 133 violent acts, which overall affected 7,142 children (recruited, displaced, injured or killed.)

SEE ALSO: Warnings of Child Recruitment Taking Place Close to Bogotá, Colombia

During the lockdown, we have also seen a highly particular dynamic, which is the targeted killings of children who are related to social leaders. There has been a marked increase in the killings of such children in attacks either on or linked to social leaders.

IC: Lockdown measures have especially affected children, due to the closing of schools. How has this played into recruitment dynamics? 

JC: It is a very worrying situation and we issued an alert about this. We fully recognize the importance of looking after the population’s health. But the schools being closed have created very complex situations for children.

This has created ideal scenarios for armed actors to get access to children through different recruitment strategies. These can range from offering them clothes, buying them or charging up a cell phone, providing a biweekly or monthly salary for carrying out tasks such as collecting extortion payments or tolls on vehicles. Armed actors are taking full advantage of this complex situation.

IC: In which parts of Colombia is this recruitment happening and which criminal groups are most involved?

JC: We have seen different situations in different parts of the country. For example, Colombia’s entire Pacific Coast has seen instances of child recruitment, including Chocó, Valle del Cauca, Cauca, Nariño and parts of Putumayo. We have received very strong alerts from the Ombudsman’s Office (Defensoría del Pueblo) about ongoing recruitment in many departments, but especially in Putumayo of late.

We have also very serious situations of armed actors having control of territory in the area of  Catatumbo, Arauca, Meta and part of Guaviare. The Bajo Cauca and Magdalena Medio areas have also seen highly concerning instances of child recruitment from the ex-FARC Mafia and the ELN.

IC: Do some groups use this tactic consistently as opposed to others who only occasionally seek to recruit children?

JC: In the situations we monitor, we have often seen the involvement of more than one armed group in some areas. Child recruitment often happens in areas where different groups are contesting for territorial control. And we must remember it is not always possible to identify the criminal actors involved.

SEE ALSO: Armed Groups in Colombia Target Children Amid Pandemic

There is also an evolution in criminal actors as some groups, or even just their names, appear, disappear, come back and disappear again.

IC: What more could the government and civil society organizations be doing to reduce child recruitment?

JC: There is no magic answer. But we welcome the fact that the Attorney General’s Office has begun to take this topic more seriously and carry out more investigations. This is an important step in making visible a dynamic that many would like to keep hidden.

However, it is crucial to strengthen preventive measures as well. Organizations such as the Commission for the Prevention of Child Recruitment into Armed Conflict (Comisión Intersectorial para la Prevención del Reclutamiento de Niños y Niñas al Conflicto Armado – CIPRUNNA) are where many government efforts can come together. They take on great responsibility in terms of preventing recruitment and strengthening protective structures where the children live.

We cannot drop our guard in terms of monitoring and tracking child recruitment dynamics.

Netflix’s ‘Immigration Nation’ – How Criminals and Companies Exploit Migration

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Netflix's new series peels back the curtain of how US immigration policies turn a profit from migrants

Released in August, the six-part Netflix documentary “Immigration Nation” goes behind the scenes of immigration policies and enforcement under the administration of US President Donald Trump.

The series features footage obtained by camera crews embedded with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) field operations offices across the country from 2017 to 2020. It also follows people harmed by enforcement crackdowns, from families separated by Trump’s “zero-tolerance” policy to community activists in Florida and North Carolina to an undocumented Marine Corps veteran facing deportation.

Immigration Nation captures questionable ICE tactics — including ICE officers using lock picks to illegally enter residences without warrants and retaliating against uncooperative local law enforcement agencies by increasing ICE presence in their communities. Realizing that the documentary would reflect poorly on ICE, the agency even pressured the filmmakers to delete certain scenes and delay its release until after the US presidential election in November 2020.

Here, InSight Crime examines how Immigration Nation shows US immigration enforcement’s effects on private industry, human smuggling, and migrants’ safety.

Privatization Drives Profiteering and Corruption

In the United States, for-profit companies are heavily involved in managing incarceration facilities and other parts of the criminal justice process. Immigrant detention is no exception, and ICE’s subcontracting practices have turned immigration enforcement into a billion-dollar industry.

According to Alan Gomez, a USA Today immigration reporter interviewed in Immigration Nation, ICE only operates five of the 220 facilities used to house detained migrants across the United States, contracting the management of the other 215 to private companies.

SEE ALSO: Migrants Easy Prey Under US ‘Remain in Mexico’ Program

With little oversight, these private prison companies charge detainees exorbitant fees for services such as calling cards and food from facility commissaries. In some facilities, detainees can sign up to work laundry and other jobs — but for no more than a wage of $1 per day.

“[The corporations’] client is ICE. The detainees, they’re more the product,” Gomez told filmmakers.

The potential for profit means that companies have a vested interest in seeing harsher immigration policies implemented. After Donald Trump’s election in 2016, the stock prices of CoreCivic — a company that runs private prisons and detention facilities — doubled.

During sting operations, the filmmakers capture how officers tally how many immigrants they have detained, while supervisors back at the holding cells count heads every few hours to see if daily detention quotas have been met. On several occasions, ICE officers are shown making “collateral arrests” — detaining those not targeted by the warrant but who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time — in order to meet quotas.

In the first episode, an ICE director radios in to one of his field officers: “I don’t care what you do, but bring at least two people in.”

“He knew you guys were with me, right?” the field officer comments to the cameramen. “Because that’s a pretty stupid fucking thing to say.”

This obsession with numbers results from federal funding guidelines. ICE files its funding requests based on “operational costs,” which are in large part derived from how many detainees are present in a facility, according to a 2018 report from the Detention Watch Network and the National Immigrant Justice Center.

The same report highlights that 79 percent of detention facility contracts do not have expiration dates, meaning that there is no scheduled timeline for review of contractor practices in most cases.

The immigration process is profitable for private companies in other sectors, too. According to the Miami Herald, ICE has paid two flight charter companies close to $500 million to run deportation flights since the start of Trump’s term — about $35,000 per deportee.

Deterrence Policies Benefit Smugglers, Endanger Migrants

In its final episode, Immigration Nation outlines how the United States’ immigration strategies have boosted the operations of transnational criminal groups while jeopardizing the lives of migrants.

In 1994, the Border Patrol released a strategic plan that reoriented the agency around a new strategy of “prevention through deterrence.” By refocusing enforcement efforts around urban points of entry, the idea was to redirect migrant flows towards more difficult and exposed entry points to facilitate their capture, as anthropologist Jason de León explained to filmmakers. In the long term, the Border Patrol hoped that the strategy would convince migrants that attempting to cross was “futile.”

This policy has been bipartisan consensus since has been further driven by the acceleration of the border’s militarization after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. According to the American Immigration Council, a DC-based nonprofit focused on immigration, the Border Patrol’s budget has more than quadrupled since 2001.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of the US/Mexico Border

Advocacy groups say that “prevention through deterrence” has turned the desert in the southwestern United States into a gauntlet for migrants, forcing them to risk injury, dehydration and exhaustion as they attempt to navigate inhospitable swaths of uninhabited, sun-scorched terrain. A recent New York Times investigation noted that by the Border Patrol’s own estimates, at least one migrant has died along the Southern border every day for the past 22 years, with half of those deaths occurring in the Arizona desert.

Strikingly, for the Border Patrol, this rise in fatalities actually indicates the policy’s efficacy. A 1997 evaluation by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) noted that a rise in migrant deaths could indicate that “prevention through deterrence” had been successful in “forc[ing] aliens to attempt mountain or desert crossings.”

In Immigration Nation, the filmmakers capture several upsetting examples of “prevention through deterrence” in action. In one scene, a Border Patrol helicopter flies low to the ground, attempting to disorient a group of migrants with dust and noise. In another, activists with human rights group No More Deaths, which gives water and first-aid to migrants, tell filmmakers how Border Patrol officers repeatedly vandalize water jugs.

Trump administration immigration policies are also shown in stark display, including its “zero-tolerance” policy, which led migrant parents to be separated from their children, and its “Remain in Mexico” metering policy, which has left migrants seeking asylum stranded in dangerous Mexican border towns.

“I do believe that the strategy is to separate families and cause them maximum pain, and use them as a deterrent,” John Amaya, former deputy chief of staff for ICE under President Barack Obama, told filmmakers.

The filmmakers also interview a human smuggler with the Sinaloa Cartel, who makes clear that he has profited from the crackdown at the US border.

The smuggler estimates that he can charge each migrant between $7,000 and $8,000 per crossing attempt. Those who try to circumvent the smuggling syndicates risk retaliation, while the increased profit margins incentivize smugglers to take greater risks with the lives of their clients.

Ironically, Border Patrol has listed one “indicator of success” as being “increased alien smuggling fees,” according to its own documents.

As Immigration Nation makes clear, “prevention through deterrence” actually benefits the criminal groups that US border agencies spend so much time claiming to fight.

At the same time, the policy does not discourage migrants from making the journey to the United States.

“I have crossed the desert eleven times,” Javier Cruz, a deportee who lived 42 years in the United States, told filmmakers. “I think this time will be the last.”

MS13 East Coast Violence Fails to Consolidate Gang’s US Presence

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The recent arrests of MS13 gang members in El Salvador accused of committing brutal murders in US East Coast states have, once again, raised alarms that the street gang’s leadership has managed to penetrate the United States in a meaningful way.

Authorities in El Salvador captured José Jonathan Guevara Castro, alias “Sospechoso,” on August 13 in Acajutla, a city on the country’s Pacific coast. US prosecutors say he led the Hollywood Locos Salvatrucha clique in Long Island, New York.

Guevara Castro and other gang members have been charged in the 2016 murder of Kerin Pineda, a 20-year-old who was lured into a remote wooded area of Long Island and hacked to death with machetes by gang members.

Grisly acts have been a staple for the MS13 in El Salvador. And such violence in US suburbs, especially along the East Coast, have allowed President Donald Trump and his administration to insist that tighter immigration policies are the only way to keep the gang from taking hold of the country.

In reality, the violence, especially on New York’s Long Island, had more to do with a wide range of social and economic factors. The MS13, as InSight Crime noted in an in-depth study of the gang, does not so much scheme as drift, finding victims in their path by happenstance more than careful, long-term planning.

SEE ALSO: US Indictment of MS13 Leader More (Political) Smoke Than (Terrorist) Fire

As a means of corroborating this tendency, InSight Crime reviewed half a dozen indictments against alleged gang members filed by prosecutors in New York, Maryland, Virginia and San Salvador between 2015 and 2020, in which authorities make reference to the links between the MS13’s leadership in El Salvador and gang cells known as cliques on the East Coast of the United States.

All of them contain accounts of links between leaders in both countries, mostly involving small transfers of money. Prosecutors also allege that the MS13 was attempting to consolidate an East Coast Program, a larger organizational structure by which the gang’s top leaders in El Salvador, known as the “ranfla,” could channel communications, organize criminal economies and impart orders to local cliques.

But this never happened.

Below, InSight Crime looks at four gang members whom authorities say are prominent MS13 leaders in El Salvador with connections to the East Coast. Almost all of them have shown an ability to transmit orders from El Salvador to murder gang members in the United States and seed terror and violence in communities, but none have succeeded in growing the gang into the powerful transnational mafia it is accused of being.

Pedro Antonio Segovia Chávez, alias ‘Clown’

Segovia Chávez, alias “Clown,” is the highest-ranking gang member that operated on the East Coast, according to court documents. El Salvador’s Attorney General’s Office says he is a member of the ranfla — a sort of board of directors of the gang — and claims he has the power and capacity to serve as the nexus between these jailed leaders and certain cliques in the areas surrounding Washington, DC.

His name first came up in “Operation Check” (Operación Jaque), a massive investigation into the MS13’s finances in El Salvador. The sweeping investigation targeted the MS13’s leadership and financial structure and provided authorities with a wealth of information on the gang’s inner workings through intercepted phone calls.

In Jaque, prosecutors fingered Clown as the boss of the gang across all of eastern El Salvador between December 2014 and his arrest in December 2016. Clown was convicted of terrorism in 2018 but continued his operations from jail in El Salvador.

He was also, according to the investigation, a member of the “línea de reportes,” or the second level of command in the MS13’s national structure that is in charge of coordinating with and informing the ranfla of “all significant daily activities,” including murders. Clown himself gave 15 orders to kill, according to prosecutors, and coordinated another 72 between January and July 2016 in El Salvador.

On January 16, 2016, Clown orchestrated a hit on behalf of the Coronados clique of the gang’s East Coast Program in the United States to murder a potential witness in a case against another gang member in El Salvador.

A police source in El Salvador told InSight Crime that Clown, due to his leadership role in eastern El Salvador, was in touch with certain gang members in the United States, especially in Maryland and Virginia. He was in charge of collecting extortion payments in El Salvador that were ordered from the United States.

However, Clown was nothing more than a messenger that transferred gang requests back and forth between cliques in the United States and the ranfla in El Salvador.

Moisés Humberto Rivera-Luna, alias ‘Viejo Santos’

In June 2013, the US Treasury Department sanctioned Moisés Humberto Rivera-Luna, alias “Viejo Santos,” and five other “significant” MS13 gang members. Viejo Santos was a leader of the powerful Normandie Locos clique in El Salvador, from where he maintained constant communication with members of the same clique in Maryland and Virginia between 2009 and 2013.

In 2010, the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) raided a house in Maryland and found evidence that gang members there had sent extortion proceeds earned in the United States to associates of Viejo Santos in El Salvador. The payments amounted to only $400, according to court documents. But this was one of the first times that authorities found evidence of money transfers between members of the MS13 in both countries.

SEE ALSO: MS13 in the Americas Investigation

Viejo Santos was also one of the first national gang leaders to communicate with his counterparts in the United States to extort there and then send the proceeds to El Salvador, in addition to coordinating murders in both countries.

Despite having sown terror and facilitated brutal acts of violence across the states of Maryland and Virginia, among other criminal activity, his influence was limited to the Normandie Locos clique and never extended across the entire gang.

José Adán Martínez Castro, alias ‘Chucky’

In 2015, according to the FBI, Martínez Castro headed up an attempt to unite different gang cliques to collect extortion proceeds from the Boston metropolitan area and forward them to El Salvador, as well as order targeted killings of Boston gang members who failed to comply with the ranfla’s orders in El Salvador.

Chucky pleaded guilty in 2017, and a US court in Boston sentenced him to almost 20 years in prison for conspiracy in 2018.

Chucky was perhaps the most successful gang member in terms of organizing the clique’s activities on behalf of the MS13, especially in Boston and other neighboring cities. In 2015, following an order from the ranfla, the MS13 tried to get cliques in the state of Massachusetts to join the East Coast Program. 

The investigation also uncovered that Chucky had directed a December 2015 meeting in Richmond, the capital of Virginia. There, a number of different clique leaders discussed “cooperating better in order to develop the East Coast Program and the need for the cliques to better coordinate their hits,” according to authorities.

In the end, however, Chucky’s reach never extended past the state of Massachusetts.

Armando Eliú Melgar Díaz, alias ‘Blue’ or ‘Clipper’

Between October and December 2017, Melgar Díaz tried to coordinate a trip for three MS13 members in Mexico to travel to Virginia in order to carry out an attack on US soil, according to an indictment against him that was unsealed July 14. It’s not clear from the document whether the gang members ever made it to Virginia, or if such an attack was ever carried out.

Prosecutors in Virginia allege that Melgar Díaz climbed the MS13’s ranks to control dozens of cliques along the East Coast, as well as in the states of Texas and Tennessee. They say he was responsible for “supervising the activities” of 21 cliques operating across the United States in Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey, as well as the District of Columbia.

But according to the same document, Melgar Díaz never united the cliques, nor was he ever able to send more than $1,000 per month back to El Salvador.

Authorities also said that Melgar Díaz was in charge of coordinating weapons shipments to the MS13 in El Salvador. However, the indictment lacks details to support those allegations.

Prosecutors said that Melgar Díaz was even allegedly tasked with coordinating with MS13 leadership in El Salvador to give “green lights,” or permission to murder enemies both inside and outside of the gang. This is similar to what Clown did in 2016. But prosecutors did not provide concrete details of these efforts either.

Violent But Not Unified

While the connections between the gang’s historic ranfla in El Salvador and cliques in the United States are tenuous at best, the MS13 nonetheless has found success in terrorizing Central American immigrant enclaves in the United States and recruiting disaffected youth who have emigrated.

According to Census data from 2013 to 2017 analyzed by the Migration Policy Institute, just over 50 percent of all Central American immigrants in the United States live in the metropolitan areas of five cities: Los Angeles, New York, Washington, DC, Miami and Houston.

“MS13 members migrate for the same reasons that other migrants do, and they go to the same places,” InSight Crime found in its investigation of the gang.

Its violence is brutal and purposeful, building “cohesion and camaraderie within the gang’s cliques.”

The killing resulting in the recent arrest of “Sospechoso,” the gang member in El Salvador, came as part of a string of brutal murders attributed to the MS13 on Long Island. Between 2014 and 2019, a Newsday investigation found that authorities had connected MS13 gang members to 32 deaths on the island.

The gang’s victims in the United States have often been other vulnerable Latino immigrants, such as four young men who were hacked to death by machete and discovered in a Long Island park in 2017. None of them had any known connection to the MS13, and two of them had fled gangs in Honduras, according to the New York Times.

Their offense, prosecutors said, was having “disrespected” the MS13.

(Top image: Associated Press photo of scene where the bodies of four young men were found in a Long Island park)

More Than Drug Trafficking Drives Violence in Colombia’s Nariño

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Officials in Samaniego, Nariño, to investigate the massacre of eight youth

The Colombian government has blamed drug trafficking for three massacres in the south of the country, but violence in the region is likely spurred by armed groups, who sow terror among civilians as a means of expanding control.

The latest massacre to send shock waves through Colombia was the August 15 killing of eight youths – seven men and one woman all between the ages of 17 and 28 — in Nariño, a southwest department bordering Ecuador, El Tiempo reported. Hooded men gunned down the group of friends enjoying a party at a ranch in the mountain municipality of Samaniego, according to the news outlet.

About a week earlier, two teenage high school students were murdered in the Nariño town of Leiva, Blu Radio reported.  And on August 18, three members of an indigenous community were killed in the awá de Pialapi Pueblo Viejo reserve, near Nariño’s Ricaurte, according to El Espectador.

SEE ALSO: Colombia News and Profile

Though there were reports alleging that the Samaniego massacre occurred because one of the friends was a gang leader who operated under the protection of National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional — ELN) guerrilla group, family members rejected those claims, saying they have not come up with an explanation for the tragedy.

Colombia’s Defense Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo told Radio Caracol that the recent violence in Nariño, a coca growing hotspot, provides all the more reason to enact aerial fumigation of crops.

“There is no question that drug trafficking has a grand presence in that zone where the killing occurred,” he said, adding that the “illicit cultivations are a threat to the community.”

InSight Crime Analysis

While Nariño is an epicenter for coca crops and drug trafficking, the recent massacres there are likely the consequence of a criminal power vacuum in the region.

The ELN currently has three fronts in Nariño: Comuneros del Sur, Camilo Cienfuegos and Compañía Toño Obando. The group has denied that it participated in the killings, blaming paramilitaries, according to a letter alleged to be from the ELN’s representatives in Cuba.

Former members of the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) have also come to occupy the region, expanding southwest from Cauca department through its Comando Coordinador de Occidente cell. This group – one of many criminalized FARC groups known collectively as the Ex-FARC Mafia — are also absorbing former fighters from what remains of the Estiven González front.

Adding to this volatile mix are the Urabeños, the paramilitary and drug trafficking group that calls itself the Gaintanist Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia – AGC) but which the government refers to as the Gulf Clan (Clan del Golfo).

This month, the Urabeños killed two ex-FARC fighters in the Nariño municipality of Magüí Payán. A video of the brutal killings circulated among residents, sending the town into a panic.

SEE ALSO: Violence Rages On in Colombia’s Cauca Department

The Urabeños stronghold is in the mountainous region encompassing the municipalities of Leiva and El Rosario in central Nariño. The killings were likely part of group’s efforts to retain power after repeated assaults by the ex-FARC from Cauca, according to an alert by the Ombudsman’s Office published on August 12. The quick expansion of the Ex-FARC Mafia has created a volatile situation for remote communities, which are often caught in the crossfire.

While the irregular armed groups are battling over control of drug trafficking, the extreme violence serves less as criminal message than an attempt to impose control through terror.

Juan Carlos Garzón, director of the conflict dynamics and peace negotiations area at the Bogotá-based Ideas for Peace Foundation (Fundación Ideas para la Paz – FIP), said on Twitter that too often the focus is on drug trafficking, when regions like Nariño require a “legitimate” and “efficient” government presence, not just an ephemeral one.

Fugitive’s Return Promises New Graft Revelations in Guatemala

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Former Guatemalan Minister Alejandro Sinibaldi speaks to the press after his arrest

A Guatemala political operator accused of taking millions in bribes has surrendered after four years as a fugitive and is set to face a series of trials in which his testimonies could provide details on an array of corruption schemes.

Alejandro Sinibaldi, the former Minister of Infrastructure, Housing and Communications (Ministerio de Comunicaciones, Infraestructura y Vivienda – MICIVI), turned himself in to Guatemalan authorities on August 24 to face charges of illicit association, money laundering, and bribery. Sinibaldi served under jailed former President Otto Pérez Molina and was a presidential candidate in 2015.

Sinibaldi’s legal team contacted the Guatemalan Attorney General’s Office around nine months ago, to begin coordinating his return from Italy, where the former minister had been evading justice since 2017. Eventually, he flew from Italy to the Netherlands, then on to Mexico, from where he was driven into Guatemala, according to Nómada.

SEE ALSO: Guatemala News and Profiles

Sinibaldi is alleged to have links to five major corruption cases, including the landmark case dubbed “Cooptación del Estado” (Cooptation of the State), which revealed a multi-million dollar illicit campaign financing scheme that helped propel Pérez Molina to the presidency in 2011 elections. According to the investigations, Sinibaldi received $10 million in bribes from private construction companies in exchange for the companies receiving preferential treatment from his agency in project contracting and debt forgiveness.

According to a statement released by the Attorney General’s Office, Sinibaldi is also implicated in the Odebrecht corruption scandal, in which the Brazilian construction giant admitted to paying hundreds of millions of dollars in bribes to secure government contracts in countries across Latin America.

The former minister is scheduled to appear in court August 27.

InSight Crime Analysis

As one of the most powerful and well-connected figures of the Pérez Molina administration, Sinibaldi could implicate a number of high-profile business and political elites in corruption schemes.

In a statement released August 24, Sinibaldi said that he decided to turn himself in in order to reveal the “entire truth about the state” and how “it has been co-opted by private interests from within its own structures.”

Given his alleged role as a key operator for Pérez Molina’s Patriotic Party (PP), the former minister could potentially provide extensive details on illicit campaign donors and state actors benefiting from bribery and kickback schemes operated by the PP, before and after the party came to power.

SEE ALSO: Guatemala Politics and the Patriotic Party’s Theory of ‘Eternal Return’

Sinibaldi also looks set to expose major players in the construction industry, who he says have accused him of extortion.

His comments are presumably a reference to the so-called “Construcción y Corrupción” (Construction and Corruption) case, in which Sinibaldi is accused of creating a network of companies used to charge illicit commissions to bodies contracted by MICIVI.

“The creators of the corrupt system with the Ministry of Communications are the constructors,” he told press gathered outside a courtroom after his arrival in Guatemala City, adding that politicians and ministers are simply opportunistic beneficiaries of the schemes.

Corruption Charges at Venezuela’s US Oil Subsidiary Fuel Tensions

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Venezuela and the US both are advancing corruption cases involving the Citgo fuel company

Both Venezuela and the United States are advancing legal cases against former officials from Citgo, a subsidiary of Venezuelan state oil company PdVSA, signaling that longstanding accusations of corruption at the company may finally be coming to a head.

In Venezuela, six Citgo executives, five of whom hold US citizenship, are facing trial after more than two years’ imprisonment. The so-called Citgo Six are charged with embezzlement relating to a never-executed proposal to refinance $4 billion in Citgo bonds.

Meanwhile, US prosecutors are advancing their own probe into bribery and money laundering at the company. The investigation implicates US companies, Venezuelan officials and even a former Florida congressman.

The Houston-based oil company Citgo has been owned by Petróleos de Venezuela SA (PdVSA) since 1990. It was the United States’ eighth largest refinery in 2019, according to Reuters, controlling four percent of the nation’s oil supply.

Below, InSight Crime provides a primer on the cross-cutting corruption investigations against the company’s senior executives.

The Citgo Six

On November 21, 2017, Citgo president Jose Pereira was called from his home in Houston, Texas, to an emergency budget meeting in Caracas, along with five other Citgo executives. Upon their arrival, all six were detained at gunpoint by masked security agents. None of them have returned to the United States since.

Venezuelan Attorney General Tarek William Saab accused the executives of “putting Citgo’s assets at risk while obtaining personal benefits.” The charges stemmed from their alleged role in negotiating a deal with US, Dubai and Swiss-based companies to refinance $4 billion of Citgo bonds.

Saab claimed the six men stood to receive a payoff of 1.5 percent of the value of the deal, which offered a 50 percent stake in Citgo as collateral, without Venezuelan government approval, according to the Associated Press.

SEE ALSO: Venezuela News and Profile

In a November 2017 televised address, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro declared that the men were Venezuelan nationals and would be tried as “traitors.”

But the case has been stagnant for well over two years. For much of that time, the  executives are believed to have been held in the Helicoide, the infamous Caracas prison for political detainees.

Although US officials have repeatedly demanded the release of the Citgo Six, a mid-July meeting between former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson and President Maduro has given the case new momentum.

After the meeting, two of the six men were moved to house arrest and allowed to meet with their lawyers for the first time in months, Reuters reported.

The announcement that the executives are finally to face trial is seen as a major step forward, although concerns remain over whether they will be tried fairly in Venezuela.

US Bribery Cases

Even as the six Citgo executives hope for a speedy resolution to their ordeal, US authorities are deepening their own investigation into corruption at the company.

The probe has its roots in the 2015 arrest of Abraham Jose Shiera Bastidas and Roberto Rincon-Fernandez, who prosecutors charged with making lavish bribes to PdVSA and its subsidiary Bariven in order to secure business for their US-based companies.

Both men pleaded guilty to the $1 billion kickback scheme, along with three PdVSA officials. A 20-count indictment was filed in August 2017 against several Bariven officials and their associates. The case eventually implicated Jose Manuel González Testino, a dual US-Venezuelan national and longstanding contractor for PdVSA based in Florida.

SEE ALSO: PdVSA Officials Plead Guilty in $1 Billion Bribery Scheme

In May 2019, González pleaded guilty to bribing PdVSA officials to “corruptly secure and retain energy and logistics contracts.” The charge related to the payment of $629,000 in bribes to Bariven.

González’s testimony also ensnared Citgo in the scandal. During trial, he admitted to making similar deals with four Citgo officials and one senior executive. The executive was Jose Pereira of the Citgo Six, according to anonymous sources who spoke to the Associated Press. Pereira’s family denies the claim.

On August 6, 2020, former Citgo manager Jose Luis De Jongh Atencio became the first company official to be charged in the United States with violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA). De Jongh allegedly received over $2.5 million in bribes in exchange for preferential access to Citgo contracts, which he laundered through shell companies in Panama and Switzerland, according to a US federal indictment filed in the Southern District of Texas.

With the unsealing of the indictment against De Jongh, 27 individuals have now been charged in the PdVSA bribery investigation. Twenty have pled guilty.

Citgo Fights Back

Citgo’s former executives and associates face a further threat: Citgo itself.

In January 2019, the US Treasury sanctioned PdVSA, citing massive embezzlement and the need to pressure for a democratic transition in Venezuela. Citgo cut all ties with its parent company the following month, and accepted a new board appointed by the opposition-controlled Venezuelan National Assembly, Reuters reported.

Citgo’s new board is currently pursuing its own lawsuit against González for his bribery of former Citgo officials, declaring that “Citgo lost millions of dollars as a result.”

The company is also investigating contracts its former executives struck with US lobbyists back in 2017 in an attempt to avoid facing sanctions. In May 2020, Citgo’s new board announced a lawsuit against former Florida congressman David Rivera — a Republican known for being a strident anti-communist — for failure to fulfill a $50 million consulting contract, according to the Associated Press.

Rivera has claimed that the $15 million he was paid was diverted to the Venezuelan opposition with the approval of the “dissident” Citgo executives now imprisoned in Venezuela, according to a Univision report. The Citgo Six deny the claim, and the Miami Herald has cited evidence that Venezuelan Vice President Delcy Rodríguez personally approved the contract. Rivera has been under federal investigation since 2017 but has yet to face criminal charges.

Corruption Cries Mount Over Pandemic Spending in El Salvador

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El Salvador Health Minister Francisco Alabí allegedly misused pandemic funds

On August 9, the website on which the El Salvador government publishes all of the country’s contract expenditures suddenly went dark. The shutdown came amid allegations of corruption by the administration of President Nayib Bukele related to coronavirus spending.

When the website came back online, all information pertaining to the Bukele presidency had been eliminated, El Diario De Hoy reported. The information was removed a day after Salud Con Lupa, an investigative news site focused on health care in Latin America, published a report alleging that Bukele’s health minister, Francisco Alabí, had spent $50,000 to remodel his office during the pandemic.

An investigation by Gato Encerrado also revealed that Alabí gave a $225,000 contract for rubber boots to an auto parts company of which his aunt is president. The boots were part of emergency spending measures for medical supplies.

SEE ALSO: El Salvador News and Profile

The Attorney General’s Office is currently investigating six officials in Bukele’s administration, including Alabí, for corruption and improper purchases, El Diario De Hoy reported.

El Salvador’s Government Ethics Tribunal (El Tribunal de Ética Gubernamental -TEG) has registered 124 complaints of improper management of pandemic-related funds, Néstor Castaneda, the agency’s director, told the program República TV. Some 90 percent of the complaints involve the executive branch, he said.

The corruption allegations have touched various officials in Bukele’s administration, including José Alejandro Zelaya, his finance minister and longtime advisor. Zelaya is under investigation for his links to a company that sold 300,000 masks to the health agency for $750,000 — a cost of $2.50 per unit, or double the manufacturer’s price, according to an El Diario De Hoy investigation.  The company — which had been in existence just seven months when it received the contract — is owned by two associates who also occupy high-level positions in a company founded by Zelaya.

The health ministry also bought 100,000 overpriced masks at a cost of $250,000 from a recycling company owned by Jorge Aguilar, head of the country’s Environmental Fund (Fondo Ambiental), according to Salud con Lupa.  Bukele later fired Aguilar, the only official in his administration to lose his job over corruption allegations.

In total, the 400,000 masks were overpriced by half a million dollars, according to Salud con Lupa. The health ministry also bought some $3 million in masks from a Miami business whose owner is an interior decorator and sells ceramics, according to an El Faro investigation.

Questions have also been raised about the construction of a $13 million hospital for COVID-19 patients, and a lack of information provided to auditors about the project.

Civil society organizations have spoken out against Bukele for blocking spending information.

“It’s an action that shows that there is no commitment to transparency or to accountability, and it also would be against the law,” Javier Castro of the non-governmental organization Fusades, told El Diario De Hoy.

Bukele has also attacked journalists reporting on corruption during the pandemic. Members of the Salvadoran media reported to the Interamerican Press Society (La Sociedad Interamericana de Prensa – SIP) — a Miami-based press freedom organization — an increase in attacks by the government, the blocking of selective information and the use of internet trolls to smear the press.

InSight Crime Analysis

President Bukele has made every effort to hide government spending during the pandemic, as allegations of profiteering by his administration have proliferated.

One of the first fights between the president and congress during the coronavirus crisis was over the accountability of emergency spending. In March, Bukele received approval from congress to spend existing health funds and hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign loans, but legislators demanded that Bukele and his ministers provide periodic reports.

The funding was delayed until the administration agreed to form an auditing committee. But the five business and academic leaders on the committee quit when the government refused to provide information about its spending.

By May, Bukele’s administration had provided reports on only $36 million of the $179 million of pandemic funds spent, according to El Faro.

SEE ALSO: Corruption and Graft Afflict Latin America’s Pandemic Response

In May, congress refused to approve extensions to emergency measures to deal with the pandemic. Since then, Bukele has tried to extend them but has been blocked by the Supreme Court.

Bukele has also suspended public information requests, including COVID-19 testing results, data on positive cases, detention measures, and conditions at quarantine facilities. José Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director of Human Rights Watch, said in a statement that these actions jeopardized people’s health.

Even prior to the pandemic, Bukele’s administration had been alleged to have misused funds, and he too has come under scrutiny for questionable financial dealings.

Corruption watchdog Transparency International warned in an August 11 report that the massive influx of cash afforded Bukele’s administration for pandemic relief and the government’s refusal for any oversight of its spending is “a recipe for corruption.”

Arrests, Seizures Show Colombians Processing Cocaine in Europe

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A Dutch police vehicle outside the farm where a vast cocaine lab was found

Authorities in the Netherlands are discovering more cocaine processing facilities, but the dismantling of the largest one to date, staffed by Colombian workers, marks a new chapter for the country.

In mid-August, a raid in the northern town of Nijeveen found a large-scale facility that contained 100 kilograms of cocaine base and tens of thousands of liters of chemicals, according to a police press release. Seventeen people were arrested, including 14 Colombian nationals.

In nearby Apeldoorn, raids on several warehouses found about 120 tons of charcoal, among which coca paste is believed to have been hidden through a process known as ‘chemical smuggling,’ to later be processed into cocaine.

The practice of hiding coca paste in charcoal has been detected in Colombia in the past, suggesting that the drugs in the Nijeveen laboratory originated there.

The facility had a production capacity of 150 to 200 kilograms of cocaine per day with a street value of between 4.5 and 6 million euros, and it had dormitories and recreational spaces allowing production to take place around the clock.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Cocaine

This finding comes amid a steady rise in seizures of cocaine and discoveries of labs across the country. The port of Rotterdam has seized several tons of cocaine in repeated seizures over the past few months. Meanwhile, cocaine processing facilities have been discovered after explosions or fires. One facility was even found by workers removing a fallen tree who smelled chemicals coming from a farming shed.

InSight Crime Analysis

The presence of over a dozen Colombian nationals in a small Dutch village implies that the country’s drug traffickers are not only shipping tons of cocaine to Europe but are also involved in other stages of the drug production chain there, including processing unrefined or altered cocaine.

As large ports such as Antwerp or Rotterdam have launched major new crackdowns on cocaine that have helped drive up seizures, drug traffickers have sought out new ways of smuggling drugs.

One particularly intricate form of smuggling known as chemical camouflage has brought Colombian experts onto European shores. In Colombia, cocaine hydrochloride is incorporated into carrier materials like textiles, shampoo or charcoal through a range of chemical processes. These range from the fairly simple, such as soaking clothes in a mixture of cocaine and water, to more complex where the cocaine is injected into products such as plastic and charcoal, according to Europol.

The carrier goods are shipped to front import companies in the Netherlands or other European countries, where the cocaine hydrochloride is extracted. Colombian journalist Nelson Matta told InSight Crime that this process is difficult, with Colombian traffickers brought into European drug laboratories to oversee the process and train their European counterparts.

Cocaine processing has also been detected in Spain. In February 2020, authorities arrested 39 people, including a number of Colombians, for allegedly running a network of five facilities in the eastern town of Alicante, El Pais reported.

In October 2019, a cocaine laboratory was dismantled near Toledo, Spain, with nine people arrested, including five Colombian nationals, according to a police statement. This facility, in which coca paste was extracted from charcoal blocks, supposedly had links to the 21st Front of the ex-FARC Mafia in Colombia. These groups are made up of former members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC).

SEE ALSO: Can Port of Antwerp Truly Stem Cocaine Entering Europe?

Spain and the Netherlands are two of the main entry points for Colombian cocaine into Europe, often through the port of Rotterdam or in the northern Spanish region of Galicia. Last November, a “narco-submarine” believed to have embarked from Colombia was captured in Galicia.

Authorities in Europe appear to be zeroing on these connections. In February, the Netherlands’ most notorious drug trafficker, Said Razzouki, was captured in Colombia. In April, an important network of Spanish drug traffickers was dismantled in Galicia after authorities began investigating the intended recipient of the sub.

Rotela Clan

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Rotela Clan is a criminal group run by the Rotela family in Paraguay. It was originally specialized in the microtrafficking of crack in poorer neighborhoods of Asunción and Concepción, but has since expanded into a national organization, controlling much of the drug trafficking inside and outside prisons.

History

The origins of the clan date back to 2007, when Armando Javier Rotela and his brother, Óscar, began recruiting young people in Tobatí, near the capital, Asunción, to join their microtrafficking activities. The clan specialized in selling crack in poorer neighborhoods of Asunción, especially those along the Paraguay river.

According to Blas Martínez, Paraguay’s former national prisons director, the group rapidly also gained a foothold as drug traffickers inside prisons, especially the prison of Concepción.

In 2014, Paraguay’s National Anti-Drug Secretariat (Secretaría Nacional Antidrogas – SENAD) dismantled a crack production laboratory belonging to Rotela Clan in Asunción, finding almost five tons of the drug. The same operation found a booklet that detailed drug distribution points across the country, showing the national reach Armando Javier Rotela had achieved by then.

By 2019, the group had consolidated itself as a national force. It was estimated that Armando Javier Rotela controlled half of the sales of all crack in the country.

Currently, after focusing heavily on recruitment inside prisons, it is believed the gang could have over 1,000 members, largely outnumbering any other criminal group in Paraguay, including its main rivals, Brazil’s First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC).

However, one weakness is that its members’ loyalty may not be particularly strong. According to Joaquín González, another former national director of prisons, most of their members are either temporary detainees, waiting to be charged, or are addicts themselves who exchange their loyalty in exchange for crack.

This problem may be similar outside prison. In Asunción and Cordillera, much of Rotela Clan’s membership is made up of microtraffickers and the group does not appear to have ambitions to expand into other criminal economies.

Leadership

The Rotela Clan’s leadership is hierarchical with the cousins, Armando Javier Rotela and Óscar Rotela Ayala, making most of the core decisions.

In 2014, Óscar Rotela was arrested on charges of homicide and drug trafficking in San Lorenzo, a neighborhood of Asunción. His cousin and the clan’s leader, Armando Javier Rotela, was first captured in 2011, during a police raid in the neighborhood of Bañado Sur in Asunción. But he escaped a year later from the prison of Misiones, alongside nine other members of the group.

Rotela was recaptured in 2016 and jailed, but instead of becoming weakened, he reconverted the Rotela Clan to draw their power base from inside prisons and recruiting enough new members to consolidate a national presence.

According to Antonio Bazán, the director of the prison in Concepción, told InSight Crime that Armando Javier Rotels has managed to maintain his leadership from inside prison due to always being highly respectful with guards and other prison staff. His recruitment strategy has also allegedly focused on those inmates coming from the worst socio-economic conditions.

After the clashes with the PCC, Javier Rotela allegedly orchestrated a riot in the prison of Tacumbú against PCC members after the San Pedro prison in which 10 Rotela Clan members were murdered.

In March 2020, almost four years after his arrest, Javier Rotela was condemned to 27 years in jail for criminal association and drug trafficking.

Geography

Historically, the Rotela Clan maintained its power base in the capital of Asunción, especially in the neighborhoods of Bañado Norte, Bañado Sur and Ricardo Brugada. It has now expanded into the departments of Cordillera, Central and Concepción.

After the recapturing of Javier Rotela in 2016, the Rotela Clan began a rapid ascent to power within the country’s prisons, authorities told InSight Crime. This has seen them consolidate a national presence, especially in Pedro Juan Cabellero and Misiones.

But it was only after the massacre of 10 members of the Rotela Clan at the San Pedro prison in 2019 that the government really began to recognize the criminal group as a nationwide threat. “Before San Pedro, it was believed the clan was only in the prisons of Tacumbú, Antigua Emboscada and Misiones, but after that, we identified them in most of the most violent prisons in the country,” Blas Martínez, Paraguay’s former national director of prisons, told InSight Crime.

In October 2019, prison officials stated that the Rotela Clan had expanded into at least 15 of Paraguay’s 18 prisons.

Allies and Enemies

While the Rotela Clan is not known to have any allies in particular, their status as a Paraguayan group has helped with the recruitment of members, especially in prisons.

This has fueled their vicious feud with Brazil’s PCC inside Paraguay’s prisons. Once allies and even planning operations together, the two groups have become bitter rivals seeking to control drug trafficking inside and outside prisons. This has led to outbreaks of violence more often associated with the PCC’s fights with rivals such as the Red Command (Comando Vermelho – CV) at home in Brazil.

In June 2019, 10 members of the Rotela Clan were brutally murdered by the PCC in the prison of San Pedro, allegedly as retribution for a PCC member having been killed in Tacumbú prison and the reported perpetrator having been transferred to San Pedro.

The two criminal groups have been at war since then.

Prospects

Clashes between the Rotela Clan and the PCC have become a constant menace within Paraguay’s overpopulated and corrupt prison system. After the massacre at San Pedro prison in August 2019, the government declared an emergency and sent in the army to take control of prisons.

This additional layer of scrutiny could have hindered Rotela Clan operations but outbreaks of violence have continued. In January 2020, clashes with the PCC left at least one dead in the Misiones penitentiary.

The balance of power between the Rotela Clan and the PCC will continue to play out, with uncertain results. On the one hand, the Rotela Clan is a homegrown Paraguayan criminal group, which has shown remarkable adaptability, surviving the capture of top personnel and expanding throughout the country’s prison system.

On the other hand, its enemy, the PCC is the dominant criminal group in Brazil, is a highly experienced prison gang and far outstrips their Paraguayan rivals in terms of overall manpower, financing and weaponry. For now, these resources are overwhelmingly concentrated in Brazil and the Rotela Clan has more men inside Paraguay, allowing it to hold firm.

Mexico City Fentanyl Seizures May Point to Shifting Trafficking Trends

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Authorities process a fentanyl seizure at Mexico City’s international airport

Authorities in Mexico have recently seized large quantities of fentanyl and precursor chemicals used to make the synthetic drug at the international airport in the capital, raising questions as to what might explain the busts.

On August 18, Mexican customs agents and marines seized 113.5 kilograms of fentanyl at Mexico City’s international airport hidden in containers as part of an air freight shipment, the government announced in a press release. The load’s origin was not identified.

This marks the second such shipment discovered this month alone. On August 12, customs authorities at the same airport seized 220 kilograms of precursor chemicals used to make fentanyl that were sent from Spain, according to a government press release.

SEE ALSO: Mexico News and Profiles

The seizures suggest a potential operational shift for Mexico’s organized crime groups, which have long used the country’s seaports to move such chemicals from Asia in order to produce fentanyl and other synthetic drugs.

March report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) noted that a “reduction in trade from southeast Asia” due to the coronavirus pandemic had “limited the supply of chemical precursors in Mexico, where it seems to have disrupted the manufacture of methamphetamine and fentanyl.”

However, the latest seizures suggest that traffickers are working around these hiccups. What’s more, National Guard forces in the state of Puebla — a notorious hub for oil theft — seized 240 glass capsules of medicinal fentanyl in July that were likely taken from a pharmacy or hospital, according to a report from the Associated Press. Earlier in May, 60 vials of medical grade fentanyl were seized in Querétaro state.

InSight Crime Analysis

What is most striking about the recent fentanyl seizures is the sheer quantities being confiscated. Tens of kilograms of fentanyl have been detected at the capital’s airport in the past but not hundreds of kilograms. However, the reasons behind these discoveries are not immediately clear, and there could be a number of potential explanations.

First, the fact that the first seizure of precursors came from Spain suggests that traffickers may now be trying to find alternative transshipment points through third party countries amid border shutdowns and transport restrictions brought on by the coronavirus, according to Bryce Pardo, a researcher at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization.

“With less commercial trade from China right now, traffickers could be testing the waters to see what other routes are easier to access,” Pardo said. “It’s a lot faster to move product by air than by sea.”

Mexico’s criminal groups have shown a tremendous ability to adapt. Even amid tighter restrictions on fentanyl production mandated last year in China, the source country for the vast majority of the synthetic drug and its precursor chemicals, crime rings managed to circumvent those controls in part by developing new chemical variants.

SEE ALSO: Mexico’s Role in the Deadly Rise of Fentanyl

The potential shift to trafficking by air could also be linked to President Andrés Manuel López Obrador recently deciding to put the military in charge of customs and controlling the country’s ports, which organized crime groups have for years exploited to move everything from chemicals for drug production to international drug shipments into the country.

However, Pardo cautioned that traffickers have long found ways to sidestep such controls and are unlikely to be deterred by the personnel switch.

“More than 19 million tons of legal cargo was imported into the port of Lazaro Cárdenas in Michoacán in 2019 alone. It is very easy to smuggle in a few hundred kilograms of drugs undetected within that,” he said.

Chile’s Gangs Embrace Wild ‘Narco-Funerals’

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Chilean police watch over the funeral of a young man in Santiago

Chile’s struggle to contain riotous burials for alleged gang members raises questions about why this practice is commonplace in a country that has not traditionally seen the funerary excesses of drug traffickers elsewhere in the region.

On August 17, authorities arrested 10 people in the town of Maipú, near Santiago, during the funeral of an alleged member of a gang known as Los Lobos that was killed during a settling of scores with another group, according to BioBioChile, citing military police sources. Police reported that attendees fired automatic weapons in the air and set off fireworks.

This is far from the first such incident in recent months linked to what have become known as “narco-funerals” but which authorities refer to as “high-risk funerals.” On August 16, a fire allegedly started by fireworks during a “narco-funeral” in Santiago spread to a nearby home and put a young child in critical condition.

SEE ALSO: In Chile, Drug Trafficking Becoming More Prominent and Violent

And in July, 57 people were arrested at a funeral for a man who had been shot dead in Santiago’s La Prado neighborhood, according to Chilean news site T13. The report added that 21 “narco-funerals” are happening in Chile on average every month, even amid the coronavirus lockdown.

Although these funerals have not caused any significant loss of life or damage, authorities have cracked down. Last year, Chile’s Undersecretariat for Crime Prevention (Subsecretaría de Prevención del Delito — SPD) created a range of measures specifically targeting these funerals, including a dedicated task force. President Sebastián Piñera also proposed a law to increase punishments for those firing weapons or setting off fireworks in public.

These funerals are coming at a challenging time for Chile. Violent crime has risen sharply during the pandemic and a survey in June found that drug trafficking was now the major security concern for most Chileans.

InSight Crime Analysis

Funerals for young gang members in Chile may lack the large crowds, police escorts and ornate tombs seen during the burials of fallen drug traffickers in Mexico. But this does not make them any less unsettling.

“These narco-funerals are real evidence of a loss of control of public spaces. They have also been associated with a wave of attacks against police stations, which could be a response by drug gangs to the crackdown [on the funerals],” Juan Pablo Toro, director of the Chilean think tank AthenaLab, told InSight Crime.

SEE ALSO: Chile News and Profile

And while Chile’s low homicide rate still makes it the safest country in Latin America, these shows of defiance to authority are happening in some of its more violent areas. In Santiago’s neighborhood of Lo Prado, where a number of these funerals have taken place, homicides were up 22 percent in the first half of 2020, according to police sources quoted by La Tercera.

The police response to send in forces is designed to make their presence felt during the funerals of young men who have been killed during gang violence, according to Lucia Dammert, a public security expert at the University of Santiago. “But the homicides themselves are taking place in areas where the state presence is very low. It’s a vicious circle,” she told InSight Crime.