The dynamics of organized crime in Latin America
Criminal organizations with decentralized power structures are engaged in a variety of legal and illegal businesses as they seek control of territories.
BUENOS AIRES, Argentina – Organized crime is undergoing a transformation in Latin America.
Security analysts say criminal organizations are more decentralized and no longer focus on a single business, preferring to engage in a range of legal and illegal activities.
“Nowadays, it’s difficult to talk about ‘cartels’ because their structure is no longer pyramidal, like the old Medellín cartel,” organized crime specialist Eduardo Salcedo-Albarán, the director of Fundación Vortex in Colombia, said.
The trend involves the formation of transnational networks, which no longer concentrate the decision-making authority with a single person, according to Salcedo-Albarán.
“It’s even more difficult to talk about ‘drug-trafficking cartels,’ given Mexican networks, such as Los Zetas, Knights Templar and Sinaloa, also are engaged in extortion, kidnapping, piracy, human trafficking, illegal mining and money laundering,” Salcedo-Albarán added.
In April 2013, Mexico’s attorney general dismantled a Los Zetas cell that was exporting oil it stole from Pemex’s pipelines in the state of Hidalgo.
“There has been an evolution of the so-called ‘enterprise syndicates’ toward new criminal structures such as power syndicates, which base their power on the control over territory,” said Antonio Mazzitelli, a representative of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in Mexico.
This is the case with Mexican criminal organizations, Central American gangs known as maras, the comandos in Brazil and the BACRIM (criminal groups)
All of them depend not on one business but on a range of businesses that respond to the economic dynamics of the territory they control,” Mazzitelli added.
That territory could be a neighborhood, a slum, a village or even parts of a city, he said.
“First, they control the criminal markets (drug trafficking, extortion, human trafficking), then the illegal markets (counterfeiting, piracy) and, in some cases, legitimate business enterprises,” Mazzitelli added. “If there’s a demand in the territory for drugs, there will be drugs. If there’s an irregular migrant route, there will be irregular migrants.”
The next step is infiltration into society’s broad sectors.
“When we talk about organized crime, we tend to think only about the criminals. But the structures of these networks have a more complex part: the grey areas between the legal and the illegal,” Salcedo-Albarán said. “These are businessmen, bankers and government officials who provide information and contribute to the networks’ successes.”
The increase in organized crime has helped make Central America the world’s most violent region.
In 2013, the highest murder rates were registered in Honduras (79 per 100,000 inhabitants), El Salvador (42) and Guatemala (35), according to Pedro Trujillo, director of the Institute for Political Studies and International Relations at Guatemala’s Universidad Francisco Marroquín.
Trujillo added there’s a growing bond between criminal groups in Guatemala and social conflict.
“When protesters block highways to demonstrate against the exploitation of natural resources, the affected territories are used to transport narcotics,” he said. “Planes land on clandestine airstrips to unload drugs or to remove them from their hiding places and bring them to the border with Mexico.”
Some environmental protests have been carried out to safeguard areas controlled by drug traffickers, according to Trujillo. The goal is to hinder the entry of security forces into these territories.
“In the [Guatemalan] department of San Marcos, on the border with Mexico, the electric company can’t get in to fix power meters because it’s being blocked by groups such as Frente Nacional de Lucha (a revolutionary movement that acts in defense of public services and natural resources),” he said, adding San Marcos is one Guatemala’s narco-trafficking epicenters.
Organized crime is involved in murder-for-hire, money laundering and human traffickingthroughout Central America.
“Sophisticated groups such as Los Zetas now dominate drug-trafficking routes. And if you already have routes to transport drugs, you can use them to transport people,” said criminologist James Finckenauer, a professor emeritus at Rutgers University in the U.S. state of New Jersey.
Throughout Latin America, criminal networks are formed from the ground up.
In the initial phase of operations, they dominate territories through the use of violence before establishing local political power to achieve a certain level of legitimacy among residents.
“As they consolidate their power in the territory, the networks infiltrate and include higher levels of government until they ultimately integrate the transnational level of activities such as drug trafficking,” Salcedo-Albarán said.
This was the path taken by the paramilitary group United Self-Defenses Forces of Colombia (AUC), which in the late 1990s was behind the election of mayors, governors and congressmen, Salcedo-Albarán added.
A monopoly on crime
The tendency within organized crime is to form monopolies, experts say.
“[In Brazil], the Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC) is achieving a monopoly on the sale of weapons and drugs,” said Marcus Reis, a Brazilian specialist in organized crime and terrorism. “The PCC can now set the price for drugs in São Paulo, in the northeast and in the south of Brazil.”
The organization seduces new members by propagating the “family ties” it maintains with members in prison.
Despite PCC’s disputes with other criminal groups in Brazil, such as the Rio de Janeiro-based Comando Vermelho and Amigos dos Amigos, Reis said there will be “accommodations” among these criminal forces.
“These groups are going to enter into agreements to ensure a Brazilian monopoly on the price of drugs,” he said. “The more competitors, the worse it is for them. That’s what is happening in Mexico, where there are several large organizations fighting amongst each other.”
In recent years, the increased pressure exerted by the security forces in Mexico and Colombia has led to the migration of drug traffickers throughout the region.
Many go to Argentina, attracted by the high living standard and infrastructure of highways, ports and airports, according to analysts.
Cities such as Rosario, Buenos Aires and Córdoba have become the focal points of actions by Colombian BACRIM and cells of Mexico’s Los Zetas and Sinaloa cartels, which traffic drugs and people to Europe.
“We’re close to being the new Mexico,” Argentine Rep. Gustavo Vera, the president of the National Anti-Mafia Network, said. “Drug traffickers are killing people in board daylight and attacking media outlets, which is what happened in the case of the El Sol newspaper in the province of Mendoza.”