InSight Crime presents “Game Changers 2011,” first annual look at the year in organized crime in the Americas. This compendium of our work during 2011 is broken down into nine themes. It is not meant to be comprehensive but to touch on the most important issues in the region during the year past, which will give us a solid basis for looking forward.
A look back gives us a chance to reflect on the incredible year that was. From Mexico to Guatemala to Colombia, government forces captured or killed some of the most powerful figures in organized crime in the region. The action came at such speed that we found it hard to keep pace sometimes. The approach, termed the “Kingpin Strategy,” left large criminal organizations headless and disorganized, and, sparked vicious fights to fill these vacuums, leading many to question whether it is the most effective way to deal with organized crime.
The Mexican government’s aggressive approach to organized crime changed the calculus of the country’s criminal groups, many of whom shifted operations south to Central American nations that are not prepared to deal with the sophisticated, well-armed and bloody Mexican cartels. Groups moving south include the Zetas, who have broken from their progenitors the Gulf Cartel and are operating as an independent franchise throughout the region. Their main base appears to be Guatemala, where they have fought or forged alliances with the local Guatemalan criminal groups. Other groups from Colombia also sought breathing space in the region. This trend has helped give the Northern Triangle countries — Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — murder rates four times that of Mexico, making the area the most violent place in the world that is not at war.
The Zetas were, in and of themselves, a major theme of 2011. The group’s expansion and tactics led to the formation of new alliances of criminal groups against them and spawned Mexico’s most mysterious paramilitary group: the Mata Zetas (Zeta Killers). The Zetas draw their strength from their military past and their focus on taking territory to control all criminal activities in a region, including human smuggling, kidnapping and extortion, a combination of which led to numerous massacres of migrants heading north through Zeta-controlled territory. Despite the rising contempt towards the group and efforts to thwart them, the Zetas have proven resilient, showing that the future of criminal organizations may more closely resemble them than their predecessors — structures that are less family-oriented, with highly diverse criminal portfolios.
Desperate for solutions to these problems, many governments in the region have employed the army in the fight against organized crime. Mexican President Felipe Calderon has sent close to 45,000 troops to violence-ridden areas. The Northern Triangle nations are following suit, most notably Guatemala, which declared a “State of Siege” in two states wracked by violence and gave the military emergency powers it had not possessed since a brutal civil war that left over 200,000 people dead, many at the hands of this same military. Honduras and El Salvador have taken similar steps, expanding the army’s role in policing. Brazil has used military troops to temporarily clear slum areas of Rio de Janeiro, leaving room for a community police program to set up shop. The results of these efforts have been mixed and the implications hotly debated, as you will see that section.
In a way, these governments are following the Colombian model. Known as Plan Colombia, the strategy employed by that government with aid from the US helped strangle the income streams of many criminal groups, and pushed large criminal cells and rebel groups to the edges of the country and well into neighboring nations such as Ecuador and Venezuela. Mexico and Central America have their own, modified versions of this strategy. Its success in Colombia, however, is still an open question. In 2011, what we saw were strange bedfellows: Colombia’s guerrillas regularly working and doing business with former right-wing paramilitaries that used to be their fiercest rivals.
The Colombian offensive has also pushed operations into neighboring countries. Colombian drug traffickers appear to be shifting their production operations north to Central America. Further south, Peru and Bolivia were also dealing with the “success” of the Colombian model. For the first time since the mid-1990s, Peru became the top producer of coca, according to the United Nations’ estimates. Bolivia also experienced a rise in coca production, and both countries have had to fight off an influx of Mexican, Colombian, Brazilian, and even Eastern European gangs, ready to buy and fight for the spoils of this burgeoning production .
Throughout the year, we also got to peek into the inner workings of the United States government. WikiLeaks’ revelations gave us a chance to see and hear from those who are helping shape the region’s response to organized crime. What we saw was an unhappy partner, a reluctant neighbor, and many a beleaguered state. The window helped us understand the means by which drugs and people move north, and guns and cash move south. Its revelations also caused the hasty departure of two regional ambassadors.
Finally, the year witnessed the emergence of increasingly sophisticated Internet-based criminal activities. Cybercrime, especially emanating from Brazil and Mexico, has numerous governments and private companies on high alert. Those suffering from crime have also turned to the web, and not always in the most effective way. Community frustration at inadequate government measures against organized crime opened the way for vigilantism, leaving a trail of blood in its wake.
Next year will undoubtedly bring more revelations and more surprises. Elections in Mexico seem to be at the center of most prognostications, but there is little to suggest that the next president, no matter his party, will be able to reverse the process of fragmentation and multiplication of criminal groups in that country, which make any real “negotiations” with the criminals nearly impossible. Without accommodation as an option, that president may be left with little choice but to continue their predecessor’s policy of using a heavy stick against organized crime. The question is how reliant the new president will be on the military and how much they will try to centralize power, a formula that has worked for other countries like Colombia.
Central America will feel the effects of these decisions most strongly. The region’s largest nation, Guatemala, has elected a former army general as president, so it may be more prepared than others to take a heavy handed approach. While rumors swirl about that president’s own relationship with organized crime, his initial moves to support a combative and so far effective attorney general mark a positive beginning. If he is successful, then his neighbors in Honduras and El Salvador will face more pressure from organized criminal groups. These groups already seem to be moving their (chemical) infrastructures north where they can process the coca base into cocaine in what they perceive as a safer environment. 2012 promises more evidence to confirm this trend.
The region’s largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), is also heading into a decisive year. For the second time in three years, the guerrillas have lost their commander-in-chief, this time to a well-organized attack in the mountains of southern Colombia. The group’s new leader, Rodrigo Londoño Echeverry, alias “Timochenko,” is thought to be living most, if not all, of the time in neighboring Venezuela. If he stays there, he is safe, but he may lose the support of his troops. If he goes back to operate in Colombia, he may quickly become the second FARC commander-in-chief to be slain in a year, changing the game in Colombia forever. The results, however, may not be victory for the government but something akin to what we are seeing in Mexico: fragmentation, chaos and more criminal activity.
Peru’s guerrillas also appear to be waning politically, even while they gain strength militarily. This type of dynamic is only possible because of the drug trade. Peru’s illicit economy is growing, so expect the Shining Path to grow with it. Other large criminal groups in the southern Andes will experience similar periods of growth. The emergence of these groups will lead to more direct conflict with government forces from Ecuador through Bolivia and into Brazil. In Ecuador and Bolivia, the governments’ response has been tepid. Expect each government to increase its rhetoric, without dedicating the necessary resources to really stem this activity or quell the movement of illicit goods.
The only country with the resources and wherewithal to really have a major impact in the south is Brazil. We will keep a close eye on how the Rio government’s pilot community policing program continues to develop. So far, it has had mixed results. We expect those mixed results to continue. Ironically, it may be undermined most by those who work or worked with the government at one point: vigilante militia groups, who are made up of current and former security forces, and are powerful throughout the city’s slums.