Corruption scandals, organized crime, democratic weakening, and an unhelpful new administration in Washington made this a tough year for Latin America. Through it all, journalists and non-governmental organizations were on top of their game.
This isn’t a comprehensive list, and there’s a bias towards coverage of things I didn’t know before. But here are just 17 articles and reports that really stuck with me this year.
- Ginger Thompson at ProPublica and National Geographic: “How the U.S. Triggered a Massacre in Mexico,” June 12, 2017.
A Mexican police unit working closely with the DEA leaked sensitive information to the Zetas in 2011. The Zetas used it to massacre dozens, possibly hundreds, in a town near the U.S. border. The DEA did nothing. With photos and recordings from many witnesses—including ex-Zetas and U.S. officials—Thompson reconstructs the horror and what U.S. drug warriors must learn from it. And today, she just published another account of a DEA-linked Zetas massacre, in Monterrey in 2010.
- Azam Ahmed and Nicole Perlroth at The New York Times: “Using Texts as Lures, Government Spyware Targets Mexican Journalists and Their Families,” June 19, 2017.
The Times broke the story of the Peña Nieto government’s misuse of spyware to hack the mobile phones of human rights defenders and journalists, including the OAS team of international experts who were investigating the 2014 Ayotzinapa massacre.
- Bryan Avelar and Juan Martínez d’Aubuisson at Revista Factum: “En la Intimidad del Escuadrón de la Muerte de la Policía,” August 22, 2017.
Given a presidential green light to use all means to combat gangs, some of El Salvador’s police have been acting like death squads, carrying out extrajudicial executions of people they believe are gang members. The investigation reveals pages of WhatsApp conversations between cops celebrating their killings.
- Sarah Chayes at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: “When Corruption Is the Operating System: The Case of Honduras,” May 30, 2017.
Chayes puts Honduras’s kleptocratic networks under a microscope, showing how they penetrate all corners of political and economic power. Reading this makes the feeble U.S. response to its “ally” all the more maddening.
- Maye Primera at El Faro and Univisión: “El Salvador, a country sown with death,” October 29, 2017.
Fourth in a remarkable four-part series about the migrant trail from Central America’s Northern Triangle to Mexico, Belize, and Costa Rica. Should dispel any doubt that a large portion of Central American migrants arriving in the United States right now are fleeing for their lives.
- Emma Graham-Harrison at The Guardian: “Downward Spiral: How Venezuela’s Symbol of Progress Became Political Prisoners’ Hell,” September 15, 2017.
Caracas’s “Helicoide” building was a symbol of Venezuela’s 1950s optimism and modernism. It later became a torture center for political prisoners, and remains a prison today—as well as the decaying headquarters of the intelligence services. What a metaphor.
- Eduardo Álvarez Vanegas, María Victoria Llorente, Andrés Cajiao, and Juan Carlos Garzón V. at Fundación Ideas para la Paz: “Crimen organizado y saboteadores armados en tiempos de transición: radiografía necesaria,” July 15, 2017.
The most thorough exploration of Colombia’s post-conflict security challenges throughout the territory. The FIP packed this report with graphics, maps, and recent information based on field research.
- Ximena Suárez-Enríquez and Maureen Meyer at WOLA: “Overlooking Justice – Human Rights Violations Committed by Mexican Soldiers against Civilians are Met with Impunity,” November 7, 2017.
As Mexico approves a law cementing in place the military’s role in internal policing, WOLA documents an ominous fact: according to judicial records, Mexican soldiers who violate human rights are almost never punished.
- Misha Glenny at The Intercept: “One of Rio de Janeiro’s Safest Favelas Descends Into Violence, the Latest Sign of a City in Chaos,” September 25, 2017.
Rocinha, a giant favela looming over some of Rio’s wealthiest beachfront neighborhoods, is getting very violent again. Glenny, who wrote a book last year about Rocinha and its organized-crime boss Nem, documents the sad deterioration of Rio’s “favela pacification” program.
- Kimberly Heinle, Octavio Rodríguez Ferreira, and David A. Shirk at Justice in Mexico, University of San Diego: “Drug Violence in Mexico: Data and Analysis Through 2016,” March 2017.
The geography, the principal actors, and chronological trends in Mexico’s organized-crime violence. A detailed, graphical overview from people who’ve been following this for years.
- Juan José Martínez D’Aubuisson and Steven Dudley at InsightCrime: “Reign of the Kaibil: Guatemala’s Prisons Under Byron Lima,” January 26, 2017.
A compelling story and an inside look at the late Guatemalan Army Captain, the corrupt, murderous military faction he represented, and how he used his ties to state power and the criminal underworld to thrive while serving a prison term for helping to murder a bishop.
- Meridith Kohut and Isayen Herrera at The New York Times: “As Venezuela Collapses, Children Are Dying of Hunger,” December 17, 2017.
A difficult read—and even harder photos to view—illustrating the savage result of the Venezuelan government’s ineptitude, dictatorial misrule, and epic corruption.
- Alex Yablon at The Trace: “American Guns Drive the Migrant Crisis That Trump Wants to Fix With a Wall,” May 25, 2017.
Thousands of guns sold legally in the United States are pouring into Central America, arming the criminal groups who, in turn, are forcing thousands of Central Americans to flee to the United States.
- Michael Smith, Sabrina Valle, and Blake Schmidt at Bloomberg Businessweek: “No One Has Ever Made a Corruption Machine Like This One,” June 8, 2017.
“Follow the money” stories are often hard to read because they’re so complicated. Shell companies, offshore banking, and similar mechanisms are hard to understand. This one isn’t hard to read: it’s a well-told walkthrough of Brazil’s massive Odebrecht scandal.
- Héctor Silva Ávalos at InsightCrime: “Nariño, Colombia: Ground Zero of the Cocaine Trade,” June 7, 2017.
The coca and cocaine heartland of Colombia’s Pacific coast in the aftermath of the FARC peace accord, as seen through the sharp eyes of a highly regarded Salvadoran journalist .
- Alexis Okeowo at The New Yorker: “A Mexican Town Wages Its Own War on Drugs,” November 27, 2017.
The story of Nestora Santiago, who organized a civilian “self-defense” force in a small town in the opium-poppy heartland of Guerrero, Mexico. Some residents defend her for making the town safer when corrupt police couldn’t. Others denounce her very real abuses of power, and of human rights.
- Lee Fang at The Intercept: “Sphere of Influence: How American Libertarians are Remaking Latin American Politics,” August 9, 2017.
The Atlas Network has a lot of resources, and it’s been backing a growing network of small-government, free-market-fundamentalist think-tanks around Latin America, a region that already has the world’s most lopsided concentration of wealth.