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Violent Crime Surges in Previously Safe Latin American Countries Amid Shifting Narco-trafficking Trends and Cartel Turf Wars
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Violent Crime Surges in Previously Safe Latin American Countries Amid Shifting Narco-trafficking Trends and Cartel Turf Wars

July 2024

Executive Summary

  • Recent policy measures, such as Colombian President Gustavo Petro's 'Total Peace' initiative, have shifted the Latin American power balance, impacting traditionally peaceful countries like Ecuador and Costa Rica. This shift has caused the formation of new narcotrafficking routes and, consecutively, a civil war among cartels for the control of critical areas of operation, forming a new geopolitical situation in the region.
  • The shift in the Latin American criminal landscape is characterised by the expansion of Mexican cartels and their collaboration with European criminal networks that manage the transatlantic distribution of narcotics to major European markets. As local criminal organisationally themselves or are integrated within the Sinaloa Cartel or the Cartel of Jalisco Nueva Generación, they are adopting tactics and modus operandi that lead to increased violence and instability. While the violence is primarily targeted against rival gangs, there is a heightened risk it could also be targeted against private firms operating in sectors used by cartels to smuggle goods into Europe, such as maritime or aviation firms and harbours.
  • The specific cases of Ecuador and Costa Rica show the impact of these recent developments: transit countries have always played a role in narcotrafficking networks, but the creation of new routes and the increasingly violent criminal methods in creating, sustaining, and expanding them caused a drastic rise in public instability and state responses that have yet to prove effective. This ineffective state response will prolong the risk posed by issues such as kidnapping and violent or petty crimes to business or personal travellers in these countries.
  • In the foreseeable future, the most dangerous scenario outlines a medium to long-term collaboration between cartels and European crime organisations that bring about the transformation of many Latin American countries into narco-states. Such a scenario would undermine bi- and multilateral trade with countries that uphold democratic values and the business continuity of private enterprises.

Changing Narcotrafficking Routes Triggers Turf Wars

Since the beginning of 2024, we have witnessed an ongoing shift in the geopolitical power balance in Latin America, a region that has been affected by decades of violence. However, the security environment of countries previously considered relatively peaceful compared to their neighbours, notably Ecuador and Costa Rica, has also deteriorated. This is a result of multiple and intertwined factors, driven by recent policy measures that have been implemented domestically to combat the illicit drug market trade and are forcing de-centralised gangs and paramilitaries to adapt. Organised crime networks have thus been forced to provide new intermediary ports between exporting countries such as Peru, Colombia and Bolivia, and the lucrative European and American markets. In the process, producer and transit countries, such as countries in the Caribbean, are presented with the combination of long-standing social and economic challenges and the current trend of escalation of violence caused by turf wars among the non-hierarchical criminal organisations that are re-defining their areas of control and adjusting their modus operandi as needed to improve their sphere of influence.

The range of factors that have played a role in the recent trend can be summarised in two categories: the exponential increase of cocaine production and the internal power disputes among cartels. On the one hand, Colombia’s coca cultivation has reached record high levels, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), with a 24% increase since 2021. Furthermore, coca crops covered 230,000 hectares (568,000 acres) in 2022. On the other hand, local organised crime is reconfiguring its structure after the death of the Ecuadorian gang Los Choneros’ leader in 2020 by the opposing cartel, the Lobos, which caused a power vacuum. As a result, the two groups are at war with each other, both in prisons and in strategic trafficking areas such as Guayaquil.

The Mexicanization of Local Criminal Organisations

The shift in the criminal landscape is characterised by a new modus operandi typical of Mexican cartels. In other words, the process of Mexicanization, better referred to as cartelisation, points to the fact that well-established criminal organisations are expanding their narcotrafficking activities to different Latin American countries. The two macro-organisations that manage the market are the competing Sinaloa Cartel and the Cartel of Jalisco Nueva Generación. As regional gangs are integrated into their network, they are adopting their methods of operation. Authorities are seeing violent behaviour synonymous with Mexican cartels - like gang killings and assassinations - carried out by highly trained hitmen.

Moreover, characteristic intimidation tactics that resemble terrorist methods are employed, such as public hangings of corpses, bombing shops and residential areas and murders of journalists and police officers. Notably, likely targets of this violence are members of the political class. However, foreigners and tourists are also increasingly targeted. For example, two Australian and American travellers were killed in April 2024 in a suspected carjacking near the town of Ensenada, Mexico, an area typically known to attract surfing tourism. This underscores the growing trend of violent cartel activity encroaching on not only areas previously considered “safer” for foreign travellers – such as hospitality-related locations or major cities. Further to this, this trend is being supported by cartels’ infiltration of the region’s political elites and policymakers to ensure that their violent activities and illicit actions are not stringently cracked down on from a policy perspective. This trend has negatively influenced their security landscape and heightened the risks foreign travellers – business or personal – face in this region.

Outside of physical security threats, the Mexicanization shift of local criminal networks also extended to their entrepreneurial spirit, with such organisations seeking to take control of other illicit but less risky sectors of the economy. For example, cartels have been implicated in environmental crimes in the form of illegal logging and mining, but also human smuggling, fuel theft, and extortion. Further to this, money laundering is a central aspect of the gangs’ finances. It is conducted through the exchange system or in activities such as construction, illegal lottery, informal loans, and small businesses. These cartels’ advances into sectors that more often interact with legitimate businesses heighten the potential reputational risks companies face in these sectors. Most notably, domestic and foreign companies seeking to start up or scale up operations in Latin American-based industries such as logging, mining, construction, etc., will likely be faced with one of two scenarios. Namely, they will either be forced to interact with these cartel-run organisations to ensure access to the market or become targeted by them because they are perceived as “unwilling to cooperate” or as “competition” for lucrative projects or profit streams.

European Criminal Networks' Blueprint

A vital component of the changing landscape of drug trafficking routes is the European counterparts that manage the storage and distribution of narcotics across the Atlantic. Most notably, the cocaine market is saturated by Balkan and Italian Mafias that have been able since the 1990s to forge close ties with suppliers in Colombia, Venezuela, Brazil and Ecuador. They have, as such, ensured a consistent flow of drugs to European countries, such as Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Switzerland. The Albanian groupsKompania Bello and Farruku Clan, together with the ‘Ndrangheta, have taken advantage of the diversification of actors involved and the increased supply to develop new and more direct routes to the European distribution hubs. The European criminal organisations also set up business operations and front companies in Latin America in the extractive and shipping sectors to facilitate drug distribution as well as money laundering.

The influence of the ‘Ndrangheta and Albanian groups also affects local murder rates. The European networks are comprised of decentralised family clans and individuals whose relationships with each other and with Latin American groups are of an informal and non-hierarchical nature, which can provoke fierce competition and even targeted killings among each other. For instance, Ergys Dashi, a member of the Breçani group and reportedly active in the Ecuador drug trade, was killed in late January 2022 in Guayaquil. This trend has had a trickle-down effect in Europe as well, where the two sides’ growing relations have increased drug and gang-related violence in major European hubs – including Amsterdam or Rotterdam. The violence linked to this trend appears to be primarily linked to growing territorial disputes.

However, European law enforcement agencies have also seen an increase in contract killings as well. While the targets of such activity are likely to remain rival criminal gangs, there is a heightened risk that civilians are targeted as well if they are perceived as presenting an “obstacle” to their growing into the European market. The most notable example of this would be the assassination ofDutch journalist Peter de Vries in 2021 by the alleged Dutch Mocro Mafia -which has strong connections with Latin American cartels - because de Vries was aiding a criminal trial against one of the Mocro Mafia’s leaders Ridouan Taghi. The influence of these gangs is very likely to increase in the coming years. As such, they are expected to pose an increasing risk to not only journalists and law enforcement but also private companies in sectors through which cartels and European gangs engage in illicit activities, such as maritime or aviation firms or harbours.

Case Studies

The Case of Ecuador

For a long time, Ecuador was one of the safest countries in Latin America. However, the country has experienced an explosive growth in violence over the past few years. From 2019 to 2023, the homicide rate has gone up from 6.7 to 45 per 100,000 inhabitants. This extreme violence was experienced particularly in Guayaquil, which provided a gate to the Pacific and was the stage of turf wars. The unrest started with an increased presence of multiple organised crime gangs in the country. Ecuador’s geographical location between Peru and Colombia, which are the two top producers of cocaine in the world, made it a logical target and vulnerable to the expansion of drug trafficking routes. Next to that, the poor economic conditions in the country exacerbated by the pandemic have caused many young Ecuadorians to become recruits.

In light of their growing popularity, fear amongst locals has arisen that this cartel will seek to further its control in the country by expanding its influence over politicians and policymakers and killing or intimidating those who cannot or will not be influenced. This trend has resulted in an environment where these groups operate with relatively limited scrutiny from law enforcement. As a result of years of impunity enjoyed by gangs, the influence of transnational crime groups, and, most importantly, increasing institutional corruption, the country’s security forces were not equipped to fight this sudden surge of organised crime effectively. To turn the tide, President Noboa has introduced several far-reaching security policies in the last year aimed at militarising the police force, introducing tougher sentences, and reforming the judiciary. Some experts have voiced concerns over the policies as they fear human rights abuses, while others think the measures are not enough to prevent further waves of violence.

Underlining the ineffectiveness of these policies and Ecuador’s police forces in mitigating this wave of crime is the growing threat posed by kidnapping in the country. The number of kidnappings has significantly increased in recent years, with cases more than tripling to 772 in 2023 and then doubling in Q1 of 2024. This threat is especially prevalent in Guayaquil, with the Ecuadorian government claiming that the number of cases quintupled in the capital city alone in Q1 2024. The declining socio-economic environment and ineffective government handling are expected to prolong Ecuador’s favourable criminal landscape for the coming years. As such, the aforementioned threats of kidnapping and violent and petty crime will remain high for business travellers and government officials operating in the country for the foreseeable future.

 

Costa Rica’s Crisis

While homicide rates have not increased as dramatically as in Ecuador, Costa Rica is experiencing a rising trend in homicide rates and criminality as well. Located between large drug-producing and drug-consuming countries, Costa Rica was affected by the growing demand for cocaine worldwide and marijuana in the country. At the beginning of 2024, the government introduced policies to counter the rising levels of violence. The Costa Rican president, Chaves, stated that these policies were inspired by the measures taken in El Salvador, where President Nayib Bukele’s ‘iron fist’ is trying to crack down on organised crime through harsh policies. The country has been in an ongoing state of emergency for the past two years, giving the government extended powers. As a result, the incarceration rate in the country has gone up to 2% of the adult population. Even though the policies introduced by the Costa Rican government are not as far-reaching yet, they do find broad support among the population. Nonetheless, their effectiveness has yet to be proven. Experts argue that the country’s low budget and broader socioeconomic problems must also be addressed to bring peace and safety back to the country effectively.

What If and What Now?

What If

Considering the current criminal landscape in Latin America, there are several ways in which the ongoing trend can develop in the coming 3 to 5 years. Here, we will consider two possible scenarios: the most dangerous and the most likely scenario.  

 

The most dangerous scenario is an increased collaboration between the cartels. At this moment, the different cartels and their European counterparts in Latin America are mainly at odds with each other and competing for access to key strategic areas for supply and transportation. As a result, their resources are fragmented, and they need to spend significant amounts of assets and capital on the turf wars. However, if they join forces, their coordinated decision-making could empower narco enterprises and undermine public security. This will enable them to exert larger control over the local population, both by oppressing citizens through violence and by gaining support from the public through financial support. Moreover, the cartels’ power over the government will also increase significantly. Instead of fighting each other, the cartels will likely shift their focus to governments to challenge and undermine their authority. Similarly, they will likely try to influence government policy through infiltration and corruption. Alternatively, the cartels may try to influence states from the inside by taking over key positions within governments. All these risks will contribute to a downward spiral in which democratic state institutions get increasingly weaker and, one by one, turn into total narco states.  

 

The most likely scenario is that the current trend will continue. While cartels and transatlantic organised crime fight for access to key areas of operation, murder and violence rates will be maintained or, most likely, increase. This trend is corroborated by increased Colombian supply and demand in the European markets. More citizens are likely to get involved in organised crime groups, causing crime and fatality rates to go up. Still, corruption and infiltration levels within state institutions are unlikely to result in a total narco-state in the short and medium term. However, this does not mean that Latin American governments will not lose authority over public security. The inability of states to effectively tackle and suppress violence will weaken their authority even further and eventually damage their legitimacy. Because of this, cartels can exert their influence and operations in other countries more easily. This will further spread the ongoing trend of Mexicanization over more states within Latin America.

What Now

As transit countries experiment with effective approaches to address violence in the neighbourhoods and prisons, organised crime establishes its control over key transportation routes and assets. In such a volatile environment, companies must adapt more resilient operational frameworks to ensure business continuity and provide geopolitical insight into investment strategies. In addition, this new Latin American criminal landscape has repercussions beyond its borders on the global drug prohibition regime, and destination countries are vulnerable to increased substance abuse rates due to the growing supply. To adapt to geopolitical developments, a comprehensive governmental and international approach can support the Latin American effort, minimise negative ramifications on European states, stay ahead of emerging threats and anticipate potential disruptions. In particular:

  

Proximities can help you gain these key insights and turn them into tangible material. Using our ‘What?’, ‘So What?’, ‘What if?’ and ‘What Now?’ narratives, we help partners and clients not only understand the importance of trends and events but, more specifically, to understand what it means for you and your business from strategic to operational consequences. Curious and interested to see how we could help you? Don’t hesitate to contact us, we will be happy to support you.

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