“Criminal Integration” in Latin America

Latin American organized crime has experimented substantial changes in the last years, positioning itself as one of the strategic actors of the region. It has been challenging territorial borders, becoming more prominent in the economy, and penetrating political and social structures. Those dynamics are threatening the economic and democratic development of the region. Through the last decades, Latin America has been engaging in several paths to economic and political integration. Successful in some areas, it seems that regional organizations have not found a way to fight efficiently transnational crime. Those criminal networks have been developing their own integration framework in the region, defying official strategies.

Crime in Latin America is a dynamic global concern. Image Source: CFR

When criminal structures spread across borders, it may respond to different logic. It can be the consequence of an altercation with other criminal group or state actions, or it can be due to the opening of new markets with the appearance of new economic success stories. The war on drugs seems to be one cause of the regional integration of drug trafficking networks. Indeed, the “victories” against criminal organizations in Colombia and Mexico have been identified as fostering factors of their own propagation in the region, especially through a criminal diaspora. The “balloon effect”, which is a phenomenon whereby production simply moves from one place to another when pressure has proven to be true in the case of cocaine production. Criminal activities under pressure in some countries moved easily to more favourable neighbouring countries, especially in states with limited response capacities (high levels of corruption and impunity).

As a consequence, in the last decade, coca cultivation has been growing tremendously in Peru and Bolivia. In parallel, Venezuela has been, progressively, replacing Colombia as an exporter of illegal drugs to to Europe, the most promising market for drug consumption. The displacement of activities and shipping routes were, of course, accompanied by a significant increase in violence. This is also called the “cockroach effect”, which describes the strategy of moving from one city to another and then from one country to another in order to avoid detection and find safer places for production. As explained by Santamaria, Colombia, Mexico and Central America are part of a circuit in which the “victory” in one country generates harm in another. Also, the war on drugs induced a fragmentation of criminal networks through the destruction of the biggest cartels. This fragmentation that took place above all in Mexico and Colombia created a more complicated illicit market with multiple producers and multiple buyers spread across the region.

 In order to spread their activity, criminal organizations also need the cooperation of corrupted branches of government institutions.  Criminal expansion requires a complex organization that can include customs and migration officials, police, members of judiciary, and elected officials.  Consequently, traditional legal and legitimate actors such as businessmen and politicians form part of the transnational criminal network. In addition, some of those criminal organizations were born following political disagreements and consequently adopted a political message.  This is the case of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). In those cases, the interaction of those organizations with neighbouring governments sharing similar views or willing to harm the country of origin of the organization eased the regionalization of the activities of the organization. For example, the FARC could settle in Venezuelan and Ecuadorian territory easily and expand their activity.

 The interdependent world that created those organizations goes above borders, governments and integrates corrupted public and private actors. In a region suffering from inherent corruption and impunity they can transport their activity at will. Another reflection of this dimension is that those organization play with the informal flows going through the region. Santamaria described how the migratory flows that circulate through Mexico and Central America could contribute to the spread of organized crime.

Human trafficking is impacted by migratory flows and border porosity. Indeed, migrants are among the most vulnerable groups in the activity of criminal organizations. Criminals have taken advantage of migratory flows for extortion, recruitment, expansion of the organization or even transportation of drugs and weapons. One famous example is Jose Natividad Luna Pereira, also known as “Chepe” Luna, a Salvadoran national who operates in the Northern Triangle. He began his career as transporter of food products from Honduras to El Salvador during the 1980s and then started smuggling humans and traffic drugs. Like today’s criminal organizations, he moves his products via a series of transport companies. His legal infrastructure has allowed him to take advantage of numerous business ventures, using them to co-opt portions of the police, judicial, and immigration systems.  It is also important to point out that migratory flows are not only used but also generated by criminal organizations.

 The violence produced by them conducts people living in their area of influence to leave their home looking for a better place. This violence can be perpetrated through different means: removing people who interfere with their business, smuggling drugs / people / weapons / merchandise through their territory, or openly fighting against another group. In Colombia, the history of criminal violence and civil war displaced 4 million of people in the last 25 years.

Criminal transnation organizations in latin america therefore work at supranational level in their own integrated regional environment. They transport their activity from one country to another and they play with regional flows and dynamics as they desire. Until now, official regional integration has failed to control those dynamics. States will need to cooperate in the confrontation of those criminal networks by developing strong mechanisms. Currently, security officials tend to avoid cases of criminal organizations operating transnationally throughout the region. Because of a lack of experience, judicial investigations rarely address the international dimension of organized crime. Also, most investigations are limited to criminal actors without addressing the corrupted traditionally legal and legitimate actors. The failure to do so let the region open to criminal diaspora transporting their activities from one country to another.

Alex Chunet

Alex Chunet

Editor, International Crime at InPRA
Alex Chunetcompleted a Master in International Public Management at Sciences Po in 2016 and is currently enrolled in a one year post-graduate program at LSE in Local Economic Development.

He had the opportunity to work in diversified institutions from the international organisations sector (OECD, UNODC), public sector (French embassy in Buenos Aires), private sector (BSD Consulting), and the academic sector (J-Pal Poverty Action Lab).

Through those experiences, he managed to acquire significant knowledge and experience in the design and analysis of economic and social public policies in emerging economies.
Alex Chunet

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