Adam Isacson

Defense, security, borders, migration, and human rights in Latin America and the United States. May not reflect my employer’s consensus view.

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Organized crime

Ecuador Didn’t Suddenly Become a Cocaine Transshipment Corridor

This narrative to explain Ecuador’s sharp escalation of organized-crime violence—repeated by a BBC report this week is… kind of correct, sort of?

Between 2020 and 2021 alone, cocaine production shot up by nearly a third and international drug cartels began looking for new routes through which to smuggle the cocaine produced in Colombia and Peru.

Ecuador, which is sandwiched between Peru and Colombia and whose authorities lacked experience in fighting trafficking, was seen as the perfect option.

I don’t mean to single out the BBC: you see this “cocaine surged, then homicide rates multiplied” idea repeated a lot. There’s something to it. But it misses a lot.

Cocaine seizures (from the UNODC World Drug Report) point to trends. That data, for Ecuador, does show a big jump in the amount of cocaine transiting the country from 2020 to 2021.

Tons of Cocaine Seized by Ecuadorian Forces

1990	1.25
1991	1.16
1992	3.89
1993	1.2
1994	1.79
1995	4.28
1996	9.53
1997	3.7
1998	3.85
1999	10.16
2000	3.31
2001	12.24
2002	11.21
2003	6.85
2004	4.78
2005	43.36
2006	34.25
2007	32.97
2008	29.07
2009	66.18
2010	15.47
2011	21.34
2012	31.98
2013	48.91
2014	53.49
2015	65.58
2016	97.78
2017	83.57
2018	79.4
2019	33.78
2020	92.16
2021	176.66
2022 (through October 31)	154
2023 (through October 6)	155

However, the numbers also show that there was already a lot of cocaine flowing through Ecuador during the 2010s, when the country was regarded to be among the least violent in the Americas.

The correlation between narcotrafficking and violence exists, but its strength often gets overestimated. A larger part of the story seems to have to do with the structure of organized crime in Ecuador.

Peaceful arrangements among criminal groups, which involved corrupt people high up in government (as prosecutors are uncovering), fell apart sometime around the turn of this decade. The river of cocaine that was already flowing through Ecuador fell into bitter dispute as past equilibria shattered.

The demobilization of Colombia’s FARC probably contributed to that. An early indicator of trouble was an extreme wave of prison violence between fast-growing gangs in the late 2010s and early 2020s, signaling a big shake-out among the country’s organized crime groups. There may have been a perfect storm of factors within the criminal underworlds of Colombia, Mexico, Ecuador, and perhaps elsewhere.

No matter what, the explanation rests on more than just a jump in the flow of cocaine. That flow was already quite robust, and quite tolerated by corrupt people in Ecuador’s security forces, judiciary, and government institutions.

Organized Crime-Tied Corruption in the Americas: Some Links from the Past Month

The drug-trafficking trial of former Honduras President Juan Orlando Hernández began on February 20 in New York. The prosecution’s witnesses, a series of Honduran drug traffickers, gang members. and corrupt politicians, have given extensive testimony about the former president’s relationships to the criminal underworld in Honduras and Mexico.

During his time in office (2013-2021), officials in the Obama and Trump administrations praised Hernández as a partner in counter-drug and counter-migration efforts. Meanwhile, Hernández was taking bribe money, often as campaign contributions, from traffickers. Some of the bribes were documented in a trafficker’s notebook ledgers. A witness alleged that the leader of Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, contributed $1 million.

Hernández is being tried alongside a former Honduran police chief, Juan Carlos “El Tigre” Bonilla, another official whom U.S. officials had considered a partner despite lingering human rights abuse allegations. “The United States’ record of working with unsavory characters” may “offer foreign leaders and officials a false sense of security,” the Economist observed.

“The narco-state was consolidated in the midst of the polarization left by the [2009] coup d’état, and it happened over a history of violent polarization between traditional political parties, landowners, and opportunist politicians,” wrote Jennifer Ávila, director of the Honduran investigative outlet ContraCorriente. “A history of fratricidal confrontation that has only benefited the political elites who renew themselves in power over and over again.”

In the violent trafficking-hub city of Tocoa, along Honduras’s Caribbean coast near the conflictive Bajo Aguán region, longtime mayor Adán Fúnez stands accused of numerous drug trafficking crimes and human rights abuses, ContraCorriente reported. He remains solidly in power.

At journalist Ioan Grillo’s CrashOut, an essay from historian Benjamin T. Smith looked at Mexico’s three-stage transition, since the 1980s, from corrupt government “protection rackets” shaking down criminals, to today’s reality in which organized crime, having taken control of these “rackets,” now applies them to legitimate businesses and local governments.

The New York Times reported that the DEA had investigated possible contributions from narcotraffickers to the 2018 campaign of Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, and possible meetings with traffickers after López Obrador took office. This came on the heels of January allegations, revealed by ProPublica, that drug money may have gone into the President’s unsuccessful 2006 campaign.

Upon receiving word that the Times was working on the story, López Obrador retaliated by revealing the mobile phone number of the newspaper’s Mexico City bureau chief during his morning press conference. The White House stated that the U.S. government is not currently investigating López Obrador.

The U.S. Treasury Department alleged that politicians in San Marcos, Guatemala, near the Mexico border, have taken payments, via an organized crime structure called “Los Pochos,” from Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel to allow them to store drugs in border areas.

As Colombia awaits its Supreme Court’s approval of a new nominee to be the country’s chief prosecutor, the acting prosecutor, Martha Mancera, is under a cloud of allegations that she helped shield a former head of the judicial police (CTI) in Buenaventura, Colombia’s busiest port, from drug trafficking and arms trafficking charges.

The Colombian media outlet Vorágine reported on evidence that a former mayor of Buenavista, Córdoba, Félix Gutiérrez, has done business with the Gulf Clan, the country’s largest organized crime network. Gutiérrez is married to Representative Ana Paola García, a member of “La U,” one of Colombia’s “traditional” (less-ideological, machine-based) political parties.

Wiretaps revealed that Eberson Páucar Sacha alias “Padrino,” a top cocaine trafficker in Peru’s conflictive VRAEM (Apurímac, Ene, and Mantaro River Valleys) region, maintains close relations with police and prosecutors. This allowed him to spring relatives and accomplices from jail.

Finding a Way Out of Ecuador’s Crisis: A New Commentary and Podcast at wola.org

We just launched two resources about Ecuador that have been in the works all month: a mini-report and a podcast.

First, the report: Why Ecuador Should Not Replicate the ‘Bukele Model’.

Among several reasons:

  • Ecuador is 13 times larger than El Salvador.
  • If Ecuador were to imprison as much of its population as Bukele has, it’d be like locking up the entire city of Manta.
  • Thanks to drug prohibition and so much cocaine passing through the country, Ecuador’s criminal groups are much wealthier.

“Here are some numbers that explain why Ecuador should not replicate El Salvador’s model of mass incarceration. If Noboa were to emulate what El Salvador has done over the past two years, the human and financial costs would be enormous, and the results in terms of public safety would be middling at best.”

Read the whole thing here.


Second, the podcast: From Under the Radar to State of Exception: Getting Beyond Stopgap Solutions to Ecuador’s Violence

From WOLA’s podcast landing page:

While this isn’t the first time Ecuador’s government has declared a state of exception, the prominence of organized crime and the consequential rise in insecurity is a new reality for the country. Ecuador has seen a six-fold homicide rate increase in three years; it is now South America’s worst, and Ecuadorians are the second nationality, behind Venezuelans, fleeing through the Darién Gap.

How did this happen? How can Ecuador’s government, civil society, and the international community address it?

This episode features International Crisis Group Fellow and author of the recent report Ecuador’s Descent Into Chaos, Glaeldys Gonzalez Calanche, and John Walsh, WOLA’s director for drug policy and the Andes. The discussion covers how Ecuador suddenly reached such high levels of insecurity, the implications of President Daniel Noboa’s state of emergency and “state of internal armed conflict” declarations, an evaluation of international drug markets and state responses, and a look at U.S. policy.

Gonzalez attributes the lead-up to Ecuador’s violent new reality to three factors:

  • Ecuador’s gradual transition into a position of high importance in the international drug trade.
  • The prison system crisis and the government’s incapacity to address it.
  • The fragmentation of Ecuadorian criminal groups after the demobilization of Colombia’s FARC and the decline of Los Choneros, a criminal group with former hegemonic control.

Gonzalez describes the state of emergency as “a band-aid solution to control the situation now, but not looking really to tackle these structural problems.”

Walsh describes Ecuador’s case as a “wake up call” to the consequences of the drug war prohibitionist approach: “This isn’t just a drug policy question. This is a question about democracies delivering on the basic needs of their citizens, which is security. And I think prohibition in the drug war doesn’t support security. It tends to undermine it.” John calls on the international community to recognize this as a humanitarian issue as well, indicating that “people are basically held hostage. Not in their house, but in their whole community.

Download the podcast .mp3 file here. Listen to WOLA’s Latin America Today podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, iHeartRadio, or wherever you subscribe to podcasts. The main feed is here.

Organized Crime-Tied Corruption in the Americas: Some Links from the Past Month

A key detonating factor in Ecuador‘s January outbreak of violence was “Operation Metastasis,” a December 2023 campaign by the national prosecutor’s office targeting government and judicial officials tied to the country’s organized crime groups. Among 30 people charged, the New York Times reported, “were judges accused of granting gang leaders favorable rulings, police officials who were said to have altered evidence and delivered weapons to prisons, and the former director of the prison authority himself.”

This corruption worsened after a 2018 shakeup and reduction of the central government’s security administration, forced by economic austerity measures, that reduced some agencies and eliminated others.

“The state and law enforcement entities cannot control the situation of criminality and violence,” Felipe Botero of the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime told Vox, because “they are involved with organized crime in the country.”

Recent attacks on members of Tijuana‘s municipal police, following an alleged November theft of drugs from a Sinaloa Cartel structure, “arise from the need of drug traffickers to buy police officers in order to remain in power” and this is because “the judiciary is rotten,” said Jesús Alejandro Ruiz Uribe, the Mexican federal government’s delegate for the state of Baja California. “The judicial power is currently a revolving door, the good police put the criminals in jail and the bad judges take them out again.”

To the east of Tijuana, surveillance videos taken on January 12 showed Mexican soldiers allegedly assisting a theft of synthetic drugs from a Sinaloa Cartel-run laboratory on a ranch in Tecate, Baja California, not far from the U.S. border.

SinEmbargo columnist Adela Navarro Bello wrote about this case, concluding, “Although these cases are isolated, they are increasingly frequent. Elements of the Mexican Army, the Armed Forces, and the National Guard collaborate with organized crime and drug trafficking cells in different parts of the country.”

In south-central Chiapas, near Mexico’s border with Guatemala, rural communities are forcibly displacing after confronting Mexican Army soldiers who they say were working with the Jalisco Cartel. Violence has flared up in parts of Chiapas in the past year as Jalisco and Sinaloa have entered into a bitter fight over trafficking routes, aggressively pushing out rural residents.

Hugo Aguilar, the governor of Santander, Colombia‘s fifth-most-populous department, from 2004 to 2007, admitted that he received support from the United Self Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) paramilitary group during his election campaign. Aguilar, a former police colonel who commanded the unit that killed Pablo Escobar in 1993, told the post-conflict transitional justice system (the Special Jurisdiction for Peace or JEP) that he did not receive money from the AUC. “They told the people that they should vote for Colonel Aguilar” in the zones they controlled, he said.

Colombia‘s Supreme Court has opened an investigation of the president of Colombia’s Senate, Green Party Senator Iván Name Vásquez. A former head of Los Rastrojos Costeños, a splinter group of Colombia’s North Valle Cartel active in the 1990s and early 2000s, alleged that Sen. Name was linked to his group.

“Alliances between criminal networks and individuals who hold positions within state institutions have even created hybrid economies, such as scrap metal trafficking or fuel smuggling, where legal and illegal business intersect,” reported InsightCrime’s Venezuela Investigative Unit. “With corrupt state elements continuing to profit from informal mining,” the security forces’ raids on illicit precious-metals mines “may work to guarantee those elements a more favorable share of those profits, rather than stamping out the practice.”

“Organized crime can’t grow without state protection, and Latin American mafias have long made it a mission to capture parts of the state,” wrote the Council on Foreign Relations’ Will Freeman at the Los Angeles Times. “They have had at least as much success amassing political power as any of the region’s political parties.”

Testimony on Organized Crime and Human Rights in Colombia

I had a few extra days to submit my written testimony from last week’s hearing of the U.S. Congress Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, since I was added to the panel a couple of days before. I just finished it and sent it in.

Here it is—and here as a PDF.

Written testimony of
Adam Isacson, Director for Defense Oversight, Washington Office on Latin America
Hearing: “Organized Crime, Gangs and Human Rights in Latin America”
Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission
U.S. House of Representatives
Washington, DC
December 14, 2023

Chairmen McGovern and Smith, thank you for calling this hearing. It’s an honor to be with you today.

I’m going to talk about Colombia, which today has a confusing array of armed and criminal groups. A decade ago, I could have named all armed or criminal groups in Colombia that had more than 100 members; today, I cannot do that with confidence. A February 2023 report from the Colombian think-tank INDEPAZ counted about 22 of them, in the categories of “narco-paramilitaries,” “post-FARC groups,” and “guerrillas.”[1]

They run the drug trade. They degrade the environment. They facilitate migration, including through the treacherous Darién Gap, where the Gulf Clan “narco-paramilitary” organization has a monopoly on smuggling on the Colombian side.[2] They kill thousands each year, including the world’s highest numbers of murdered human rights and environmental defenders.[3] They displace or confine hundreds of thousands more.

INDEPAZ categorization of Colombian armed and criminal groups

Narco-ParamilitariesPost-FARC Groups (FARC Dissidents)Guerrillas
Drug trafficking groups, most of which have leaders who participated in the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), a confederation of pro-government militias that demobilized in 2006. The Gulf Clan is by far the largest.Loose confederations of groups led by former members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla group, who rejected the 2016 peace accord. Less than 10 percent of FARC members who demobilized in 2017 have re-armed.[4]The National Liberation Army (ELN), founded in 1964, is the only remaining leftist guerrilla group.
Active in about 345 of Colombia’s 1,104 municipalities (counties)Active in about 161 municipalitiesActive in about 162 municipalities
– Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces or Gulf Clan
– EPL or Pelusos
– La Oficina
– Los Pachencas
– Los Puntilleros
– Los Rastrojos
– Los Caparros
– Los Costeños
– Los Pachelly
– La Constru
– Los Contadores
– Los Shotas
– Los Espartanos
– Southeastern Bloc (Central General Staff)
– Comando Coordinador de Occidente (Central General Staff)
– Segunda Marquetalia
– “Independent” groups:
– 33rd Front
– 36th Front
– Oliver Sinisterra Front
– Guerrillas Unidas del Pacífico
– 4th Front
– ELN
Source: “Informe sobre presencia de grupos armados en Colombia 2021 – 2022” (Bogotá: INDEPAZ, November 25, 2022), https://indepaz.org.co/informe-sobre-presencia-de-grupos-armados-en-colombia-2021-2022-1/

Why organized crime is so much harder to fight than guerrillas

In 2016 Colombia’s largest leftist guerrilla group, the FARC, signed a peace accord and demobilized, following a decade-long, U.S.-backed series of military offensives and four years of negotiations. Guerrillas have disappeared from many areas, from the roads around Bogotá to the slums around Medellín. But it is difficult to identify a territory in Colombia that was under organized crime’s influence 30 years ago—going back to the heyday of the now-defunct Medellín and Cali cartels—that is not under organized crime’s influence today.

Hundreds of top cartel and criminal-organization leaders have been killed, imprisoned, and extradited to the United States. The groups’ names change, they divide internally, or are supplanted by other groups. But organized crime is still remarkably active throughout Colombia, and a constant factor in millions of Colombians’ daily lives. Often, today’s active groups can trace their DNA back to the cartels of the 1980s and 1990s, the paramilitaries of the 1990s and 2000s, and remnants of demobilized leftist guerrillas.

Weakening the FARC to the point that it was willing to negotiate cost Colombia tens of thousands of lives, and billions of dollars (many from Washington) that could have saved or improved millions of lives. After all that, Colombia’s other adversary, organized crime, remains as strong and as wealthy as ever.

Why has organized crime been so much more resilient, and so much harder to confront, than leftist guerrillas? There are a few key reasons.

  • The FARC had a firm command hierarchy, while organized crime is looser and networked. Removing leaders did more harm to the FARC’s command and control.
  • Because of its loose structure, organized crime often fragments when confronted (and sometimes fragments anyway because of internal divisions). The result is dozens of groups instead of just a few.
  • Members and leaders of organized crime groups are more often mixed in with the population, more likely to be in towns and less likely to be in distant areas like jungle encampments, which are more susceptible to aerial attacks and other offensive operations.
  • Most importantly, the FARC actually wanted to fight the government. Organized crime groups will confront government forces or institutions when they see their interests gravely threatened or wish to send a message. But they prefer not to do that. Fighting the government is bad for a group’s business, as it focuses the state’s military and intelligence resources against it.

Instead, organized crime thrives on its relationship with government. Corruption is the oxygen that it breathes. Criminals need police who will look the other way when a cocaine shipment is going downriver. They need mayors who go along when they traffic people or dig illegal gold mines out in the open. They need prosecutors who let cases die.

The problem of government collusion with organized crime is especially concerning when it concerns the security forces. (Colombia’s military and police have been the Americas’ number-one recipients of U.S. security assistance since the early 1990s.) A scan of Colombian media reveals numerous examples of military and police personnel, at all levels and all around the country, accused of colluding with armed and criminal groups.

Read More

The Dangerous Wait for a CBP One Appointment in Tamaulipas, Mexico

An investigation by four veteran Reuters reporters finds a link between the Biden administration’s use of an app that makes asylum seekers wait for weeks in Mexico, and an increase in attacks on migrants, especially rapes of migrant women, in Mexico’s organized crime-dominated northern border state of Tamaulipas.

U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration in May moved to a new system that required migrants to secure an appointment—via an app known as CBP One—to present themselves at a legal border crossing to enter the United States.

Nine experts, including lawyers, medical professionals, and aid workers, told Reuters the new system has had unintended consequences in the two cities, contributing to a spike in violence.

The high risk of kidnapping and sexual assault in Reynosa and Matamoros is one of the factors pushing migrants to cross illegally, four advocates said. Crossings border-wide surged in September.

Tamaulipas border cities like Matamoros and Reynosa have been notoriously dangerous for years. They’re home to the decades-old Gulf Cartel, the Northeast Cartel (an heir of the Zetas), and other splinter groups that compete violently.

Map showing Tamaulipas' location along the eastern segment of the U.S.-Mexico border.
Tamaulipas, from WikiMedia Commons

These regional cartels have less-solid control of their territory than do larger national cartels like Sinaloa. This makes them more prone to use violence against newcomers and outsiders—including U.S. citizens, four of whom were kidnapped, two killed, in March when they came to Matamoros for a cosmetic surgery procedure. These criminal groups also make somewhat less money from the drug trade than the larger cartels; such “poorer” criminal groups are more likely to fund themselves by preying on vulnerable people, including migrants.

The Mexican state, especially the hyper-corrupt local government in Tamaulipas, is no protection. Officials often collude with organized crime.

So in recent months, when an asylum seeker uses CBP One, they can travel from elsewhere in Mexico to the border and show up at a U.S. port of entry at their appointed time. They do not need to hire a smuggler. That’s great.

What’s less great is that, when the port of entry is in south Texas (Laredo, McAllen-Hidalgo, and Brownsville, which make up 42 percent of CBP One appointments border-wide—605 out of 1,450 daily spots), the asylum seeker must travel through Tamaulipas territory under organized crime control. In order to be sure not to miss their appointment, they may even stay in this territory, near the port of entry, for days or weeks.

When they do that, the cartels—whose eyes and ears in the region are thorough enough to rival Cold-War East Germany—often find them and demand money. Reuters explains:

[C]riminal groups are still demanding these migrants pay to enter their territory, the experts said.

“Rape is part of the torture process to get the money,” said Bertha Bermúdez Tapia, a sociologist at New Mexico State University researching the impacts of Biden’s policy on migrants in Tamaulipas.

Podcast: Cartels on the terrorist list? Military intervention in Mexico?

I just sat and recorded an episode of the solo podcast that I created when I started this website six years ago. Apparently, this is the first episode I’ve recorded since July 2017.

There’s no good reason for that: it doesn’t take very long to do. (Perhaps it should—this recording is very unpolished.) But this is a good way to get thoughts together without having to crank out something essay-length.

This episode is a response to recent calls to add Mexican organized crime groups to the U.S. terrorist list, and to start carrying out U.S. military operations against these groups on Mexican soil.

As I say in the recording, both are dumb ideas that won’t make much difference and could be counter-productive. Confronting organized crime with the tools of counter-terrorism or counter-insurgency won’t eradicate organized crime. It may ensnare a lot of American drug dealers and bankers as “material supporters of terrorism,” and it may cause criminal groups to fragment and change names. But the territories were organized crime currently operates will remain territories where organized crime still operates.

Neither proposal gets at the problem of impunity for state collusion with organized crime. Unlike “terrorist” groups or insurgencies, Latin America’s organized crime groups thrive because of their corrupt links to people inside government, and inside security forces. As long as these links persist, “get-tough” efforts like the terrorist list or military strikes will have only marginal impact.

You can download the podcast episode here. The podcast’s page is here and the whole feed is here.

Vice: Congress Suddenly Wants to Know If US Taxpayers Were Helping El Chapo

From a very good piece at VICE by Keegan Hamilton, who closely followed the New York trial of former Mexico public security chief Genaro García Luna:

For watchdogs like Adam Isaacson [sic.], director of defense oversight at the Washington Office on Latin America, it’s no surprise that the U.S. government turned a blind eye toward García Luna while he was in power.

“It seems pretty clear that the DEA and other parts of the United States government knew that Garcia Luna was not somebody that they could fully trust, and that, in fact, he may have been colluding with armed groups or with organized crime,” Isaacson told VICE News. “But they still found him useful because he was going after other organized crime groups at the same time.”

Isaacson pointed to examples beyond Mexico, such as Honduras and Brazil, where the U.S. has provided funding and training to state security forces linked to corruption and human rights abuses, and said it’s no longer shocking—it’s simply business as usual in the war on drugs.

“Their mission is not to make corruption go away,” Isaacson said. “Their mission is to break a drug organization and get as many tons of drugs seized as possible so it doesn’t make it to the United States. And if that means making common cause with bad guys to go after other bad guys, they’re going to do it without regard to the institutional or accountability damage that that might do in the countries that they’re working.”

Otoniel’s signature

The last page of this week’s guilty plea in U.S. federal court of Dairo Úsuga, alias “Otoniel.” Until recently, Úsuga was the maximum commander of the Gulf Clan, Colombia’s most powerful neo-paramilitary organization, and one of the country’s top narcotraffickers.

The 51-year-old boss accumulated immense power, controlling territory and penetrating his influence deep within Colombia’s state. But this page does not show the handwriting of a man who had to write very often in his life.

Graphics on organized crime in Mexico

El Heraldo de Chihuahua published this map of organized crime dominance and territorial conflict along the U.S.-Mexico border in the state of Chihuahua, which extends from New Mexico to Texas’s Big Bend National Park. It names five criminal groups affiliated with two larger “cartels” (Sinaloa and the regional/local Juárez Cartel). The article’s text mentions seven local criminal groups. It does not mention the large and growing Jalisco Cartel.

Tijuana’s Revista Zeta, which has a long record of courageous reporting on organized crime in Mexico, published this table of “Cartels Recognized by the Attorney-General’s Office (FGR),” attempting to show which local criminal groups (“criminal cells”) are affiliated with which larger national cartels. Like the El Heraldo map, this table shows the Sinaloa (Pacífico) and Juárez (Carrillo Fuentes) cartels active in Chihuahua, naming four local criminal groups.

The table shows the remarkable fragmentation of criminal groups that has resulted from years of “mano dura” and “high-value targeting” strategies, which have weakened or divided cartel leaderships but done little to prevent vast territories from being fertile ground for organized crime.

Is it Mexico or Colombia?

During the late 2000s, when the Bush administration was rolling out the “Mérida Initiative” aid package to support Mexican President Felipe Calderón’s fight against cartels, secuirty analysts fretted about the “Colombianization” of Mexico. They meant that the country could be consumed by generalized violence so severe that it impacts political stability and economic viability.

Despite—or perhaps because of—the military-first strategy it pursued against organized crime, Mexico has long since “Colombianized.” In 2019 Mexico’s homicide rate was greater than Colombia’s.

Colombia’s homicide rate wasn’t much lower, though—and even as its cities remain relatively calm amid COVID-19 lockdown, the countryside is aflame with about 51 massacres so far in 2020. Still, Colombia’s violence is different than it was a decade ago. The FARC are gone. So are right-wing paramilitary groups with a national political agenda. Today’s armed groups are scattered FARC dissidents, the ELN, the Gulf Clan organized crime network, and several regional organized crime splinter groups.

Different groups are active in different regions. Many didn’t exist a year or two ago. Many won’t exist a year or two from now. They fight for control of the drug trade, which still probably provides the largest illicit income stream. But they also want to control territory to benefit from illegal mining, land theft, human trafficking, extortion, and other activities. Almost none can lay claim to a political program. Almost all benefit from relationships with corrupt local government officials, including security-force units.

I was referring to Colombia in that last paragraph. But re-read it and you’ll find that it also describes Mexico. It can describe the situation in Nariño, Cauca, Chocó, the Bajo Cauca, or Catatumbo. But it’s also Guanajuato, Michoacán, Guerrero, or Tamaulipas.

The following seven excerpts come from two recent reports: one about Mexico, and one about Colombia. The first is the annual Organized Crime and Violence report that the Justice in Mexico program at the University of San Diego published on July 30. The second is a 3,400-word overview of Colombia’s security situation that the investigative website La Silla Vacía published on August 24.

I’ve removed any information from each excerpt that might identify the country it describes (like names of places, people, drugs, or armed groups). Everything else is intact.

Can you guess which country each excerpt is referring to? Answers are at the bottom.

1. Fragmentation into smaller, more predatory groups

Counter-drug efforts and conflicts with rival organizations have disrupted the leadership structures of some major groups. This has contributed to the splintering of groups into smaller, more regionally-focused operations. Because of their more localized scale, such organizations tend to have less capability to develop trans-national criminal enterprises, like international drug trafficking operations. As a result, in addition to small-scale drug dealing, they are also more inclined to engage in predatory crimes, such as kidnapping, extortion, robbery, and similar crimes, which involve illicitly extracting revenue from individuals or businesses. Compared to major drug trafficking operations, many of these crimes have relatively low “barriers to entry” and often require less state protection. However, because of their predatory nature, the fragmentation of organized crime has contributed to more widespread victimization and public outrage.

2. Narcotrafficking is one of many illicit activities

“In some zones, narcotrafficking is the most important problem, but it’s not the only factor. In fact, for groups like [name], [name], and [name], the fight is over territorial control and all that that contains. Control over populations, imposition of rules, ‘taxes’ as they call it—extortion of the people—of all they can collect from them, and even access to local political power through intimidation,” said [a non-governmental expert].

3. Government strategies have fed fragmentation

U.S. and [country] counter-drug efforts targeting major drug trafficking organizations—including efforts to eradicate production, interdict illicit goods in transit, and disrupt organized crime leadership structures—contributed to fragmentation and further infighting among criminal organizations. In particular, the use of leadership disruption, or “kingpin” removal has greatly increased the internal fragmentation and competition among criminal organizations, and accordingly has been seen as a major contributor to violence.

4. Substituting for the state during the COVID-19 outbreak

It seems likely that the combined supply-chain disruptions, increased law enforcement scrutiny, and surges in the market have led to increased violent competition among traffickers vying to hold onto or expand their market share in uncertain times. Such organizations have also been making obvious attempts to gain public visibility and support, even showing up the government by distributing aid packages of food and supplies to help poor families amid the pandemic.

5. The military agrees that the strategy can’t just be military

The military strategy without state presence isn’t enough, as Army General [name], who is in charge of [unit], recognizes. “The solution isn’t soldiers in the territory, the solution is comprehensive, committing different sectors in the region to eliminate the narcotrafficking that causes violence. Where there’s drugs there’s death, blood, and pain. We provide the military component on the ground to try to stabilize the regions, to try to keep the armed groups from carrying out these kind of bloody interventions,’ he said. This comprehensive approach implies social investment and “the economic stabilization of the regions,” said the officer.

6. Local corruption helps groups thrive

Recent surges in violence are a function of the complex interactions among criminal organizations, and the choices and strategies that past and current governments have employed to combat them. Just as concerning, the ability of organized crime groups to thrive hinges critically on the acquiescence, protection, and even direct involvement of corrupt public officials, as well as corrupt private sector actors, who share in the benefits of illicit economic activities.

7. Conflicts are localized, while the government pursues a military-first approach

In [country] there is not one, but several local wars taking place, with actors and logics that aren’t exactly the same, but with something in common: they are raging everywhere. Meanwhile the government, according to experts and according to its own announcements, is pursuing a strategy that is more military than structural, even as it promises the opposite on paper.

Answers

(1), (3), (4), and (6) refer to Mexico.

(2), (5), and (7) refer to Colombia.

WOLA Podcast: “Beyond the ‘Narco-State’ Narrative”

I’ll be going back to an interview format for tomorrow’s podcast (if all goes according to plan). Today’s episode, though, is the audio track of a March 20, 2020 WOLA webinar about criminality and corruption in Venezuela, and the viability of a political exit to the crisis. This event is based on a March 11 report by WOLA’s Geoff Ramsey and David Smilde, who look at U.S. data and find that drug trafficking and other criminality and corruption, while big problems, are not so severe as to rule out negotiating a political solution with the Maduro regime.

In this event audio, Ramsey and Smilde are joined by Jeremy McDermott, the co-director of InsightCrime, and investigative journalist Bram Ebus, a consultant to the International Crisis Group.

Listen above, or download the mp3 file here.

Links from the past month about organized crime-related corruption

Colombia

Para el alto tribunal, los homicidios de la exalcaldesa del municipio de Barrancas, Yandra Brito, su esposo y su escolta no tienen relación con el conflicto armado

Un senador involucrado, un general encarcelado y decenas de empresarios y compañías en la mira forman parte del nuevo capítulo, que no será el último

Desde los narcocasetes de 1994 al último capítulo que tiene en aprietos al general (r) Humberto Guatibonza y otros exoficiales de la Policía

La Fiscalía tiene interceptaciones en las que los supuestos protagonistas del entramado de chuzadas hablan del secuestro de los periodistas ecuatorianos, de bloqueos de cuentas bancarias y hasta de casos de infidelidad

Guatemala

On September 16, at a press conference where the CC judges read their decision in favor of the CICIG, an undercover police officer attempted to photograph journalists who were covering the event

His government is backed by a so-called juntita of retrograde military officers and a bloc in the Guatemalan Congress derisively known as “el pacto de corruptos”

Acompañado por el alto mando militar y solo tres ministros de su gabinete (Gobernación, Defensa y Exteriores), en una imagen que recordaba a las épocas más represivas de la guerra civil, Morales dijo que había notificado a la ONU que no renovaría el mandato

Honduras

Valladares —who was a regional commander of the special criminal investigations unit (Dirección Nacional de Investigación Criminal – DNIC) in San Pedro Sula— committed murder for the once powerful Cachiros drug trafficking organization

La captura de seis policías activos en los últimos dos meses es una muestra de que en la institución siguen las “manzanas podridas” a pesar del proceso de depuración

Mexico

ProPublica’s reporting detailed that the Mexican SIU had a yearslong, documented record of leaking information to violent and powerful drug traffickers

State authorities and military personnel took control of security in the municipality of Tehuacán in central Puebla state, disarming 205 municipal police officers on the force

Nicaragua

Authorities in Costa Rica arrested an alleged leader of an international drug trafficking organization while he was dining with the son of a Nicaraguan Supreme Court magistrate

U.S.-Mexico Border

A Texas National Guard soldier who is part of the state’s border protection buildup has been accused of stealing from U.S. Customs and Border Protection methamphetamine that federal agents had seized

Colombia’s Dumbest Trafficker

In mid-March Jeremy McDermott, a longtime investigator of organized crime in the Americas, published a study at the site of InsightCrime, the organization he co-directs. He profiled the thriving new cohort of Colombian drug traffickers, which he calls the “fourth generation” of narcos, or just “the invisibles.”

With the FARC’s and AUC’s exits from the criminal scene, narcotrafficking has been left more exposed than ever, with nowhere to hide. Once identified by national and international authorities, the useful life of an important capo is short, at least unless he is prepared to live as a guerrilla in the jungle, passing from one shack to another every night, and renouncing the comforts and opportunities that a great fortune might offer. That’s why today’s narcotrafficker prefers to hide behind the facade of a successful businessman, avoiding the ostentation and extreme violence that characterized earlier generations.

In an English summary, McDermott added:

Colombian drug traffickers have learned that violence is bad for business. The new generation of traffickers have learned that anonymity is the ultimate protection, that “plata” (“silver”) is infinitely more effective than “plomo” (“lead,” as in bullets). …Today’s Colombian drug trafficker is more likely to be clad in Arturo Calle [Colombia’s equivalent of Men’s Wearhouse] than Armani, wear classic European shoes rather than alligator boots, drive a Toyota rather than a Ferrari, live in an upper middle class apartment rather than a mansion with gold taps. He will have the face of a respectable businessman.

With Colombia producing record-high amounts of cocaine, there is much money to be made as a drug trafficker today. But unlike past generations, the last thing a trafficker wants to be is high profile. It attracts too much attention.

But that’s exactly what Wálter Patricio Arizala Vernaza, alias “Guacho,” has chosen to do. In just a couple of months, this former FARC fighter has risen from obscurity to be possibly the most sought-after criminal in both Colombia and Ecuador. And it’s all due to his own actions.

Guacho gives a Colombian television interview, which is also a dumb move.

An Ecuadorian citizen from the border province of Esmeraldas, Arizala joined the FARC in 2007. He was a member of the group’s powerful Daniel Aldana Mobile Column, active in Nariño along the Colombia-Ecuador border. There, he specialized in explosives but was also found to be very good at math. He was promoted to management of the Column’s finances in a territory that today is the busiest cocaine superhighway in South America:

Guacho developed contacts with Mexican narcotraffickers who buy and transship cocaine in southwestern Colombia and northwestern Ecuador. This makes him the classic example of the mid-level guerrilla leader whose demobilization was so important for the peace process to guarantee: someone with contacts in the criminal underworld who would be tempted to abandon the peace process at the first lucrative opportunity. And that’s what he did: when the FARC headed to its demobilization sites in early 2017, Guacho went on the lam.

His “Oliver Sinisterra Front,” named for a FARC colleague killed in 2015, grew very fast, a rapid rise documented by the International Crisis Group’s Kyle Johnson in a piece published this week to Razón Pública. Guacho may now be commanding as many as 450 people. Many of them are former FARC militias in the port city of Tumaco, and many are fresh recruits. His group reportedly controls cocaine labs capable of producing at least 10 tons per month. It is currently the largest in an ever-shifting patchwork of criminal groups fighting for control of Tumaco, whose surrounding municipality (county) has more coca than any other in Colombia.

Guacho and his “front” could have kept a low profile and become quite wealthy, had they followed McDermott’s suggestion to use “plata” much more than “plomo,” seeking to corrupt and penetrate institutions.

Instead, though, they have picked spectacular fights with authorities on both sides of the border.

  • In November 2017, Guacho’s group attacked a checkpoint of Ecuador’s Special Mobile Antinarcotics Group (GEMA) with grenades and gunfire, killing four.
  • In January, it set off a car bomb outside a police station in Guacho’s hometown of San Lorenzo, Ecuador, that wounded 28 people. This was an apparent retaliation for an Ecuadorian police raid and search of his mother’s house.
  • In February, it launched a mortar at an Ecuadorian Army post, with no casualties.
  • On March 20, it set off a roadside bomb in Ecuador, killing four Ecuadorian soldiers and wounding ten.
  • On April 5, Guacho’s group knocked out an electric tower in Colombia, plunging Tumaco into darkness. This was an apparent retaliation for the Ecuadorian government arresting one of his brothers-in-law. Power lines again went down on April 18.

The most spectacular action, though, was the March 26 kidnapping of two reporters from Quito’s El Comercio newspaper, together with their driver. The captives’ plight became daily front page news in Ecuador. The #NosFaltan3 (“we’re missing 3”) hashtag continues to get constant use on social media. Sometime before April 13, Guacho’s group killed Javier Ortega, Paul Rivas Bravo, and Efraín Segarra on Colombia’s side of the border, under circumstances that have yet to be cleared up. Sometime last week, Guacho’s group kidnapped two more Ecuadorian citizens, Vanesa Velasco Pinargote and Oscar Efrén Villacís Gómez, who remain in custody.

Hostages Rivas, Ortega, and Segarra, murdered sometime before April 13.

From a drug trafficker’s perspective, these are incredibly stupid things to do. The message Guacho has sent is, “look at me, put a target on me, make me a top priority.” And indeed, Colombia and Ecuador have offered a combined reward of more than US$230,000 for information leading to his capture. Using McDermott’s frame, Wálter Arizara is a first or second-generation drug trafficker in a fourth-generation world.

Nine years ago Colombian Police Chief Gen. Óscar Naranjo (now the Vice President) said that the authorities had reduced the “useful lifespan” of the average top drug trafficker to 24 months, after which they are captured or killed. Today, a “well behaved” trafficker like one of McDermott’s “invisibles” may hang on for far longer. But for someone like Guacho, who has committed very grave errors, two years sounds like far too long an estimate.

This Week in Colombia’s Peace Process

(Week of March 25-31)

“Dissident” Group Kidnaps Reporters on Ecuador Side of the Border

The Pacific coastal border region between Colombia and Ecuador has heated up amid an offensive launched by a fast-growing dissident group made up mainly of former FARC members and militias who have rearmed. The “Oliver Sinisterra” group, named for a former FARC commander killed in combat with Colombia’s army, is led by Walter Artízala alias “Guacho,” an Ecuadorian border-zone citizen whom the FARC recruited in 2007. It has between 70 and 450 members.

Guacho’s group is disputing control of criminality in this zone, the busiest maritime cocaine trafficking corridor in all of Colombia, with the Urabeños neo-paramilitary group, the ELN guerrillas, and another FARC dissident group headed by alias “David.” Spain’s El País newspaper reported in January that Guacho does business with four drug cartels, including the Urabeños and Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel. Colombia’s prosecutor-general, Néstor Humberto Martínez, said in mid-March that the group “is at the Sinaloa Cartel’s service.”

Guacho’s group has carried out the most spectacular attacks in the region so far this year. In January, it set off a car bomb in Esmeraldas, Ecuador, that wounded 28 people. In February, it launched a mortar at an Ecuadorian Army post, with no casualties. On March 20, it set off a roadside bomb in Ecuador, killing three Ecuadorian soldiers and wounding eleven.

On March 26, the dissidents kidnapped three reporters from Quito’s El Comercio newspaper from the border zone, and appear to have brought them to the Colombian side. Ecuadorian authorities say they are in contact with the kidnappers and that the captives are in good health.

On the night of March 26, the Pacific port city of Tumaco, near the border, was blacked out after Guacho’s group bombed an electricity pylon. It took several days to restore power. This city of 200,000 people—never a peaceful place—has been hit by a wave of violence, with 67 homicides during the first 85 days of 2018.

FARC dissident groups like Guacho’s are growing quickly around the country. Colombian armed forces chief Gen. Alberto Mejía said last week, “Today there are 1,200 of them dedicated to narcotrafficking and criminal economies; depending on the region, they make alliances with other armed groups.” Ariel Ávila of Colombia’s Peace and Reconciliation Foundation think-tank estimated that 800 of them are guerrillas who have abandoned the demobilization process, and the rest are new recruits. Of the 242 (out of 1,100 total) Colombian municipalities, or counties, where the FARC once had influence, Ávila told El Colombiano, dissidents are now active in 48. A “high source” in the governor’s office of Nariño department, which includes Tumaco, told the La Silla Vacía investigative site that Guacho has been in conversations for a possible alliance with what may be the country’s largest dissident group, that of alias Gentil Duarte in south-central Colombia. The site could not confirm this rumor.

Government Forces Kill Urabeños’ Third-in-Command

On March 28 Colombia’s National Police announced the killing of Aristides Meza, alias “El Indio,” whom it characterized as the number-three commander of the Urabeños neo-paramilitary group. Meza, whom the police said was wanted by U.S. authorities, was killed by an aerial assault in Montelíbano, Córdoba. According to the release, “El Indio” commanded 200 men and

directed the criminal activities of the “Gulf Clan” [one of several names used to refer to the Urabeños] on the Pacific and Caribbean coasts and in the Magdalena Medio region.… In addition, he coordinated criminal alliances with narcotrafficking structures in Panama, Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico, for the permanent export of loads of cocaine, by sea and land, to the United States and Europe.… According to the [Police intelligence] investigation, the capo paid between 10 and 15 million pesos [US$3,000 to US$5,000] for virgin girls and adolescents, and loved imported products, especially whisky, cariar, cheese, and other canned goods.

InsightCrime reports that Meza’s killing is the latest result of “Operation Agamemnon II,” the Colombian security forces’ effort to take out the Urabeños’ leadership. In the last seven months, this operation killed Roberto Vargas Gutiérrez alias “Gavilán,” the group’s number-two leader, and top boss Luis Orlando Padierna alias “Inglaterra.” This puts the Urabeños, led by top fugitive Dairo Úsaga alias “Otoniel,” badly off balance, according to InsightCrime:

With a number of top lieutenants out of the picture, Otoniel will have to replace his inner circle with people who do not necessarily have the same level of experience and knowledge as their predecessors.… Now that the Urabeños’ operations on the Pacific coast are leaderless, competing groups like the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) could try to scoop up territory that the weakened group no longer has the power to control.

EPL-ELN Combat Worsens in Catatumbo

Tensions continue in Catatumbo, a region of highly organized campesinos and extensive coca cultivation in Norte de Santander department, following a March 14 shootout that signaled the breakdown of a years-long truce between two leftist guerrilla groups. The FARC, the ELN, and a small local group, the Popular Liberation Army (EPL), had long coexisted. But with the FARC out of the picture and the EPL undergoing leadership changes, intensifying ELN-EPL competition has worsened the security situation.

A March 26 update from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) warns that since March 14, insecurity has affected more than 20,300 people in the municipalities of San Calixto, El Carmen, Hacarí, Sardinata, El Tarra, and Convención. 12,500 have been unable to access basic goods and services. About 3,000 are confined to their communities. More than 2,400 have been displaced. Over 2,360 children have been unable to attend school.

An extensive report by Verdad Abierta explains what is going on. Analysts cited place much of the blame on the EPL which, after losing its top leader to a Colombian Army raid in late 2016, embarked on a “disorderly” process of expansion that “violated tacitly established norms” between the guerrilla groups. “For the past two years,” Wilfredo Cañizares of the Cúcuta-based Fundación Progresar told the website, “the EPL arrived in ex-FARC territories to carry out punitive practices on the population, bringing the community together and saying: ‘These are the new rules and those who don’t comply, die.’ This happens in a very complex context, because in Catatumbo there are strong civil-society processes, the Community Action Boards have already developed codes of conduct… there are organized and politicized communities on which the EPL came to impose itself through violence, even killing social leaders, which is why their problems with the ELN began.”

Citizen groups in Teorama and El Tarra have organized marches to demand that the armed groups respect international humanitarian law and keep them out of the conflict. “The armed groups’ response [to the protests] didn’t take long in coming,” reports El Espectador. “In the town of Filo Gringo, El Tarra, where combat affected the school and other civilian assets, EPL members threatened the promoters of a protest.”

Three Social Leaders Killed in a Week in Bajo Cauca Region

The Bajo Cauca—several municipalities in northern Antioquia department, a few hours’ drive from Medellín—may be the most violent part of Colombia right now. The cause in this longtime cocaine-producing region is fighting between the Urabeños and a local organized-crime group called “Los Caparrapos.” Along with neighboring southern Córdoba department, Bajo Cauca leads the country in forced displacement so far this year. And it has seen an alarming wave of killings of social leaders.

Víctor Alfonso Zabaleta, the president of a Community Action Board in Cáceres municipality and a participant in a government coca-substitution program, was murdered on March 25 along with another campesino. That same day, Jorge Miguel Polanco, a former Community Action Board leader, was killed along with his son. As reported last week, Community Action Board leader José Herrera was killed on March 20 in Caucasia.

The problem is worsening nationwide. On March 27 the OAS Inter-American Human Rights Commission (IAHRC) put out a statement reiterating “its concern over the high number of murders of human rights defenders and social leaders registered this year in Colombia.”

According to the Ombudperson’s Office, 22 human rights defenders were assassinated in Colombia over the first months of 2018.… According to an Ombudperson’s report, between January 2017 to February 2018, there have been 121 murders of human rights defenders.… The Commission observes with concern that plenty of those murdered human rights defenders carried out actions aimed at implementing the peace agreements related to land distribution. In addition, the Commission has received consistent reports indicating that indigenous and Afro-Colombians human rights defenders are exposed to aggravated violence.

Neo-paramilitary groups may be responsible in many cases, the IAHRC said: “In regards to the perpetrators of those murders, the Nation’s Chief Prosecutor has indicated, in December 2017, that he has identified the presence of ‘self-defence’ strongholds which could be acting systematically to some degree in several regions of the country.”

El Espectador noted that

Of 156 murders of leaders currently under investigation by the National Police Elite Corps and the Prosecutor-General’s Technical Investigations Corps, 68 have made investigative advances, and 117 people have been arrested for their presumed material responsibility for these acts. However, although in some cases it is known who ordered the killings of these human rights defenders, it’s clear that the faces of the ‘intellectual authors’ of a great majority of these homicides remain an enigma.”

Of those 156 cases under investigation, El Espectador concludes, 98 are in the initial inquiry stage, 18 are under formal investigation, 31 are in the trial stage, and 9 have achieved guilty verdicts and sentences. “These statistics make clear the long work that lies ahead.”

Senate Hold on U.S. Ambassador Nomination

The Washington Free Beacon, a pro-Trump U.S. website, reports that Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) is blocking the confirmation of the nominee for U.S. ambassador to Colombia, Joseph MacManus. Under Senate rules, a single senator can prevent any presidential nominee from getting a vote by putting a “hold” on the process. “The hold can last for the rest of the congressional year,” the Free Beacon explains, “and force President Trump to either nominate a new person for the role or wait until January when a new Congress begins to nominate Macmanus again.”

MacManus is a career Foreign Service officer, whose Senate Foreign Relations Committee nomination hearing on March 8 was mostly uneventful. He is opposed on the far right, however, because he was on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s personal staff during the 2012 attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, which became a cause celebre for Clinton’s political opponents. During the hearing, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida), the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee’s Western Hemisphere Subcommittee, asked MacManus about his role in Benghazi, but did not pursue the line of questioning very far.

Opponents of MacManus’s nomination may also want president Trump to nominate a political appointee—a non-diplomat who shares the president’s “America First” outlook—instead of a career diplomat. The Free Beacon article speculates that the arrivals of hardliners Mike Pompeo and John Bolton to the posts of secretary of state and national security advisor might spell an end to MacManus’s nomination and the naming of a more ideological appointee. It’s not clear, though, how a more extreme nominee could win approval in the Senate, where Republicans hold a fragile 51-49 majority and where the Foreign Relations Committee’s chairman, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tennessee), is a Trump critic who will retire at the end of this session.

New Reintegration Agency Chief

Joshua Mitrotti, the longtime director of the Colombian Reincorporation Agency (ACR), has left his post, La Silla Vacía reports. The Agency attends to ex-combatants who seek to reintegrate individually into civilian life, and some aspects of the reintegration of those reintegrating collectively, as most of the FARC has sought to do. Mitrotti said he had told President Juan Manuel Santos two months ago of his desire to leave his post for personal reasons. He will be replaced by Andrés Stapper, a lawyer with 11 years’ experience at the ACR.

La Silla Vacía notes that the reincorporation process is in rough shape, as the government and guerrillas never agreed on a collective reincorporation policy.

The good news is that of 12,535 ex-FARC combatants accredited by the Office of the High Commissioner for Peace, more than 12,000 have a bank account where they are receiving 24 monthly payments of about 90 percent of minimum wage ($220). More than 11,000 are signed up with the national health system and 8,000 with the national pension system. 3,976 have received at least a few days’ vocational training.

But there have been “few advances” on “productive projects,” usually agricultural investments, “which are thought to be how they would make a long-term living.” The FARC want the government to disburse 8 million pesos (nearly US$3,000) to each ex-member, as agreed in the accord, so that they may launch their projects. The government does not want to turn over the money until all ex-guerrillas have received training and all projects have been approved by a body that includes the ACR director, the National Reincorporation Council. Of the 26 zones where FARC members congregated to demobilize in early 2017, only four have active, approved productive projects currently underway.

In-Depth Reading

WOLA Podcast: Looking for Glimmers of Hope in Honduras

Here’s a conversation with Sarah Kinosian, a WOLA program officer who works with me on our Defense Oversight work. Sarah is just back from a weeklong research visit to Honduras. We discuss arms trafficking, police reform, gangs, drug trafficking, migration, U.S. assistance, and Honduras’s own reform efforts, looking for evidence that anything is “working.”

Links from the past month about organized crime-related corruption in Latin America

Detail of a graphic from Periódico Central demonstrating how politically connected criminals routinely steal gasoline from the pipelines of Mexico’s state oil company in Puebla.

(I say “organized crime-related” to distinguish this kind of corruption from its slimy, tawdry, but usually less-deadly cousin, “graft.”)

Colombia

In his latest column, the security analyst goes over some of the historical ties between opposition leader and former president Álvaro Uribe’s supporters and organized crime, and notes that even today Uribe’s party has introduced legislation that would help criminals keep land that they have massively stolen.

Honduras

Devis Leonel Rivera Maradiaga, an extradited leader of Honduras’s Cachiros drug-trafficking organization, has been implicating many Honduran politicians while testifying to a New York court. These include the brother of President Juan Orlando Hernández and the son of the previous president, Porfirio Lobo.

Mexico

U.S. agents acting on a federal indictment arrested Edgar Veytia, alias “Diablo,” the chief prosecutor of Nayarit state and member of the governing PRI party, for trafficking heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine and marijuana. Nayarit is featured as the home state of the “Xalisco boys” heroin-trafficking ring in Sam Quiñones’s excellent 2015 book Dreamland.

Officials from the recently elected government of the U.S. border state of Chihuahua recognized that, during the previous governor’s term, many municipalities’ police forces and local officials passed into the complete control of organized crime and narcotrafficking. This is especially so in the state’s northeast (a dangerous zone near the Texas border east of Ciudad Juárez) and in the Sierra Tarahumara mountains. The ex-governor, Javier Corral, fled to Texas last week in a questionable attempt to evade corruption allegations.

This investigation looks at collusion between government officials and organized crime in the state of Puebla, east of Mexico City, where the practice of stealing gasoline from the national oil company’s pipelines is widespread.

Venezuela

A series of monographs detailing links between the state and organized crime in Venezuela. Found via a March 22 English overview by InsightCrime, which summarizes a January monograph by Mildred Camero, a former Venezuelan judge and “drug czar.” Camero argues that 2005 and 2010 reforms giving the armed forces a greater role in investigating and combating drug trafficking ended up corrupting them to the extent that they now control most large-scale smuggling.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.