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Record-High Drug Seizures and Arrests in Argentina: A Success Story?

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Authorities in Argentina have hailed the record-high increase of drug seizures and arrests made since 2015 as a sign that their security strategy is working, but critics say that the fine print tells a very different story. Argentina’s federal security forces arrested more than 64,000 people as part of nearly 60,000 counter-narcotics operations, representing a 147 percent increase between 2015 and 2018, according to official figures published by Perfil. They also reported that the amount of cocaine seized doubled between 2015 and 2018. Seizures of marijuana increased 26 percent and of synthetic drugs, 144 percent during the same period, according to data reported by Clarín.

SEE MORE: Argentina News and Profile 

Speaking at a press conference, Argentine Security Minister Patricia Bullrich said that the figures illustrate the use of “better investigative techniques” and the deployment of “more professional federal security forces.”

InSight Crime Analysis

Although authorities in Argentina were quick to say that the increase in drug seizures and arrests translates into gains against criminal organizations, a closer look at the figures unveils a not-so-positive picture. Most of the arrests included in the latest statistics seem to have been made under Argentina’s Narcotics Law, which targets large drug dealers and small consumers alike. The law is so controversial that is due to be debated in Congress. Critics argue it goes against a 2009 Supreme Court ruling saying that criminalizing drug possession for personal use is unconstitutional since it goes against a number of rights, including the right to privacy. Drug violations are currently the second most common crime for people held in prison in Argentina, according to official data, and they have increased at a higher rate than any other crime since President Mauricio Macri took office in 2015. During a speech in Congress in October 2018, Security Minister Patricia Bullrich said that 36 percent of drug-related arrests made in 2017 were linked to personal use of drugs. “The vast majority of cases [reflected in the latest figures] are related to personal drug use, micro-trafficking, and women coerced to transport drugs. When you take all those out of the equation, the number of cases that are actually related to large-scale drug trafficking organizations is around three percent. And those are only cases under investigation, we are not even talking about sentences,” Mariano Fusero, President of Reset, an organization that studies drug policies in Argentina, told InSight Crime. Since taking office in 2015, President Mauricio Macri made the fight against corruption and organized crime a priority for his administration. To be sure, criminal groups in Argentina seem to have expanded and become more sophisticated in their operations over recent years and the Macri administration has taken some valuable steps to help bring members of some large criminal organizations to justice. However, they have been criticized for focusing strongly on small-time organizations, including when it comes to drug seizures. One of the best ways to evaluate the real impact of the increase in drug seizures, given the lack of information regarding the real size of an illegal market, is by looking at how it affects demand. According to data from the latest official survey in Argentina, marijuana consumption increased by 150 percent while cocaine consumption doubled in 2017. “If there was less availability of drugs, there would be less consumption. If demand increases it is because the offer has increased to meet that demand,” Fusero said.

Argentina, Bolivia Authorities Arrest South America’s ‘Chapo Guzmán’

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Authorities in Bolivia have arrested one of Argentina’s most sought after drug traffickers dubbed the alleged “El Chapo Guzmán” of South America, in a case that underscores how rampant judicial corruption helps facilitate drug trafficking in the country. In coordination with Argentina’s National Gendarmerie, Bolivian police on February 13 arrested José Miguel Farfán in the city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra in central Santa Cruz department on drug trafficking charges, authorities announced in a tweet. He was turned over to Argentine authorities the following day. Farfán is alleged to be one of Argentina’s most sought after drug traffickers. He reportedly bribed federal judges to facilitate his criminal activities and buy his freedom, according to Clarín.

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Authorities first arrested Farfán in 2004 and then again in 2008 on drug trafficking charges before he was released from prison in 2010 by federal judge José Antonio “Toto” Torino — who was later convicted of taking bribes from drug traffickers — in northwest Salta province, according to Clarín. In 2014, Farfán was arrested yet again for trafficking more than 411 metric tons of cocaine using small planes. However, he bribed the now jailed former federal judge Orán Raúl Reynoso to secure his freedom and fled the country, according to Clarín. A 500,000 Argentine peso (around $13,000) reward was posted for information leading to his arrest. In Bolivia, Farfán allegedly posed as an entrepreneur and farmer using the name Miguel Ángel Salazar. He and his family led a luxurious double life in Bolivia, living in a mansion and driving a yellow Hummer while he continued his drug trafficking activities, according to Clarín.

InSight Crime Analysis

Farfán’s drug trafficking career is a prime example of how known criminals can capitalize on corruption within Argentina’s judicial system to further their criminal activities, live luxuriously and evade capture at the same time. Indeed, the former Argentine federal judge Reynoso, who Farfán bribed to avoid prison time, is now in jail on charges that he colluded with known drug traffickers and sold confiscated cocaine all while presenting an image that he was tough on such criminals. In one instance, Reynoso authorized two of his employees to transport seized cocaine meant for destruction back across the border to Bolivia to be repurchased by its original owners, according to La Nación. This brand of corruption not only allowed Farfán to be freed from jail on multiple occasions, it also let him live a life of luxury in Bolivia without fear of being apprehended while he kept on with his criminal activities. So comfortable was Farfán that he reportedly invested $2 million into a condominium and had plans to build another one, according to Clarín. What’s more, the drug lord used false identification to move around the country and continue trafficking drugs to Argentina from Bolivia using small planes. As the so-called “Chapo Guzmán of South America,” Farfán shares similar characteristics with the now jailed former Sinaloa Cartel leader Joaquín Guzmán Loera, the real “El Chapo.” The Mexican drug lord also escaped prison multiple times with the help of corrupt government officials and continued to run his billion dollar criminal enterprise after doing so. Although El Chapo, on the other hand, managed to evade authorities while trafficking hundreds of thousands of kilograms of drugs right from his home country as he had always done.

Synthetic ‘Pink Cocaine’ Crossing from Argentina Into Uruguay

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Anti-drug officials in Uruguay are warning citizens about the arrival of a new kind of alleged pink cocaine from Argentina, underscoring how the synthetic drugs market in Argentina may be spreading to neighboring countries. Uruguay’s National Drug Board (La Junta Nacional de Drogas de Uruguay — JND) is alerting citizens about the arrival of a new so-called “pink cocaine” synthetic drug from Argentina that is being detected in the country, Prensa Latina reported. Authorities in Uruguay say the drug comes in the form of a pink pill or powder. In Argentina, however, the drug is reportedly marketed as cocaine powder to the country’s upper- and middle-class at electronic music parties or through messaging applications like WhatsApp and the dark web, an encrypted and anonymous part of the Internet.

SEE ALSO: Uruguay News and Profile

However, the drug is actually a synthetic drug known as 2C-B, a stimulant and hallucinogenic drug similar to MDMA that first gained popularity in Europe. Earlier this year, authorities in Uruguay seized some of this pink synthetic drug in a carton of the hallucinogenic LSD, according to El Pais. Authorities in Argentina first detected the drug five or six years ago. They say it was first consumed by networks of thieves from Colombia that frequented electronic music clubs in the Palermo and Costanera neighborhoods of the capital Buenos Aires, Clarín reported. The drug sells for 2,000 Argentine pesos (around $50) per gram, according to Clarín, which is seven times more expensive than a gram of cocaine, making it one of the most expensive drugs on the market. Medical professionals in Argentina are unsure why the drug is being marketed as being similar to cocaine. “The consequences of consuming this drug have little to do with cocaine hydrochloride,” according to Sergio Saracco from the Argentine Toxicological Association, Clarín reported.

InSight Crime Analysis

The emergence of synthetic drugs in Argentina and Uruguay follows a regional trend of criminal groups adapting to the growing demand of such drugs. Although Argentina has not been a flashpoint for their consumption, its local drug market is following regional shifting dynamics.   While Argentina has increasingly become a key transshipment link for South America’s cocaine trade, domestic trafficking, and local consumption have also increased in recent years. National drug consumption data published by Argentine authorities in 2017 revealed that the estimated number of marijuana and cocaine consumers grew by nearly 150 percent and almost 50 percent, respectively, between 2010 and 2017. The percentage of young people between the ages of 12 and 17 using cocaine and ecstasy also tripled during that time. It’s possible that the presence of the pink synthetic drug 2C-B reflects a shift in the products domestic users are demanding.

SEE ALSO: Argentina News and Profile

However, Colombian traffickers who control the sale of 2C-B at home and in Buenos Aires appear to be stretching the drug by using cutting agents to sell to different social classes after it became a staple for the Argentine capital’s upper- and middle-class. The Colombian non-governmental organization Échele Cabeza told Clarín that the 2C-B being sold is a “fake, adulterated substance” in 95 percent of cases. “It’s highly probable that Sildenafil [Viagra] is also used in the mixture to increase stimulation, but this also increases heart rate and the risk of heart attack,” according to Échele Cabeza. The recent warnings from anti-drug officials in Uruguay suggests that dealers may now be increasingly cutting and extending sales of the synthetic drug outside of Argentina and into neighboring countries in response to growing demand.

Major Odebrecht Corruption Cases and Investigations in 2019

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Since beginning in Brazil with the “Operation Car Wash” (“Operação Lava Jato”) investigation in 2014, the Odebrecht corruption scandal has been headline news across Latin America. Presidents, lawmakers, and business tycoons alike have been charged and jailed across the region. Here, InSight Crime presents a round-up of investigations or trials against prominent figures in Latin America and the Caribbean. Mexico: Mexico has shown a lethargic approach to the Odebrecht scandal. The only high-profile name being investigated for the largest corruption scandal to rock Latin America is Emilio Lozoya Austin. The former president of the state-owned oil company Petróleos Mexicanos (Pemex), who served under former President Enrique Peña Nieto, is accused of conducting a corruption scheme that involved ghost companies between 2012 and 2016. In addition, Mexican prosecutors believe that Austin used the hefty bribes received from Odebrecht to fund the electoral campaigns of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional – PRI), including that of Peña Nieto. Many in Mexico believe that the lack of accountability and prosecution by the federal government was a way for the former and current administration to protect those who were involved with Odebrecht.  In a country known for its high levels of impunity, it remains to be seen if this case will eventually lead to more far-reaching investigations. In February, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador vowed that the investigation into Odebrecht would continue, which may see more inquiries begin soon. Dominican Republic: Preliminary Odebrecht hearings have dominated news headlines in the Dominican Republic in recent weeks. Known for its entrenched corruption, the Caribbean nation is currently investigating seven people that reportedly received more than $92 million in bribes from the Brazilian construction giant. Two names that stand out from the investigation are current Senator Tommy Galán and former Public Works Minister Víctor Díaz Rúa. Both men are members of the Dominican Liberation Party (Partido de la Liberación Dominicana – PLD), which is gearing up for the 2020 presidential election.  A guilty conviction could potentially tarnish the image of the party and hamper its chances at retaining power as the current president, Danilo Medina, is also a member of the PLD. El Salvador: Former president Mauricio Funes is being investigated for allegedly embezzling $351 million. Odebrecht is suspected of paying out between $1-3 million to Funes during 2009 presidential campaign. Funes, who was president from 2009 to 2014, is also under judicial investigation for reportedly paying off deputies in order to obtain favorable votes in the Legislative Assembly during his presidency. The ex-president has four arrest warrants out against him for corruption cases. He is now residing in Nicaragua protected by political asylum granted by President Daniel Ortega. However, the spokesperson of newly-elected president Nayib Bukele announced that the government will begin talks with Nicaragua to demand Funes’ deportation. Guatemala: Guatemala’s current investigation into Odebrecht is centered on the former minister of infrastructure, and current fugitive, Alejandro Sinibaldi. The Attorney General’s Office and the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG) claim that Sinibaldi led a criminal structure within the Communications Ministry. Sinibaldi is currently under an Interpol search warrant and an additional eight people with close ties to him are being sought by authorities, including his brothers, Alvaro and Luis Rodrigo Sinibaldi. Another key figure being investigated in Guatemala is former presidential candidate Manuel Baldizón, who was arrested in the United States in January 2018. Baldizón is accused of allegedly receiving bribes from Odebrecht officials to help them with public works contracts in the Central American nation. After a failed attempt to seek asylum in the United States, Baldizón decided to withdraw his request and is now pending extradition to Guatemala. A constitutional crisis has unfolded in Guatemala after President Jimmy Morales decided to ban the CICIG from the country, a move that has been met with public and international backlash. As a result of the absence of the CICIG, the latest hearing against Sinibaldi and Baldizón was suspended and rescheduled for February 27, 2019. It remains to be seen what impact the ongoing crisis with the CICIG will have on the future of the case.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Money Laundering

Panama: Former President Ricardo Martinelli, who is under arrest, and other people with close ties to his presidency are currently under investigation for allegedly receiving bribes from Odebrecht. Panamanian prosecutors indicate that from 2009 to 2014, the duration of Martinelli’s presidency, payments surpassing $96 million were awarded for infrastructure projects such as road improvement in Chanis, the Tocumen Airport expansion, the urban renewal of Curundú, improvements to Line 1 of the Metro, and many others. As a result, the Special Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office in Panama launched an investigation against the former economy minister Frank de Lima, who is accused of receiving at least $7 million in improper payments. Another high-level name that is currently under investigation is the former minister of public works, Jaime Ford. Ford is linked to accepting illegal bribes from the Brazilian company, as well as being accused of overpricing the Arraijan-La Chorrera Highway project for illicit purposes. Colombia: In Colombia, Odebrecht paid at least $32.5 million in bribes to ensure contracts for the building of the Ruta del Sol highway and other infrastructure projects. Colombia’s Attorney General Néstor Humberto Martínez has found himself in the spotlight  after Jorge Enrique Pizano, an auditor, revealed secret recordings in which he talked about contract irregularities with Martínez, who was at that time an attorney for Corficolombiana, a minor partner of Odebrecht. Pizano’s tapes with Martinez came to light in a television interview. Pizano, who was suffering from cancer and ultimately died of a heart attack, provided the interview on the condition that they only broadcast it in the event of his death. Congress has opened an investigation into Martinez’s statements about the Obredecht scandal, and he is under pressure to resign. Martinez’s conflict of interest doesn’t stop with Corficolombiana. He was also legal advisor to Luis Carlos Sarmiento, Colombia’s richest man and founder of the conglomerate Grupo Aval. Grupo Aval is a part owner of Corficolombiana and is currently cooperating in a US Justice Department investigation, according to Reuters. Former Senator Otto Nicolás Bula Bula, who was sentenced to two years in jail for bribery, has been the government’s key witness in unraveling the graft scheme. The investigation has ensnared a number of government officials during the administrations of both former presidents Alvaro Uribe and Juan Manuel Santos, including former senator Bernardo Miguel Elías. Ecuador: Ecuador’s Odebrecht case illustrates a close-knit corruption structure that took place under the presidency of Rafael Correa. His childhood friend and ex-vice president, Jorge Glas, who is already serving a jail term for the corruption scandal, has been accused by Luis Mameri, Odebrecht’s vice president in Latin America, of accepting further bribes than initially known through a company named Glory International. In September 2018, the Ecuador’s Attorney General’s Office opened a preliminary investigation against eight people for allegedly indulging in organized crime within Odebrecht’s corruption scheme. Among those investigated is former President Rafael Correa, who is currently residing and seeking asylum in Belgium. In addition, former legal secretary of the presidency Alexis Mera, former Interior Minister José Serrano, and former Attorney General Diego García are also being investigated for their role in the Hydroelectric San Francisco Project. Ecuador’s Attorney General’s Office recently announced that an additional 11 preliminary investigations were going to be targeting Rafael Correa, Alexis Mera, and Jorge Glas. The latest announcement solidifies Ecuador’s efforts to punish those involved in this corruption scandal.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Elites and Organized Crime

Peru: To say that the Odebrecht scandal has rocked the political class in Peru would be an understatement. Maria Sokolich, Peru’s new attorney general following the controversial resignation of Pedro Chávarry, is currently overseeing the investigation into some of the country’s top politicians, which are holding or have held the highest office in this country. Current president Martín Vizcarra is being investigated for an alleged link between his company and Odebrecht between 2006 and 2008. His predecessor, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, has an ongoing investigation against him — which forced his resignation in March 2018 — for alleged consultancies that his company, Westfield Capital, made to Odebrecht between November 2004 and December 2007. Former president Alan García, who was denied an asylum request in Uruguay after the allegations came to light, is accused of taking bribes during the construction of the Lima Metro. The two other former presidents being investigated for allegedly taking bribes are Alejandro Toledo and Ollanta Humala. In March, Odebrecht’s former executive in Peru, Jorge Barata, is expected to declare this in Brazil. Barata’s testimony could potentially create new shockwaves in the Andean nation. Recently, Odebrecht has announced it will cooperate with the Peruvian government. Its former executives in the country are set to be interviewed, which may yet lead to further revelations. Argentina: The Odebrecht investigation in Argentina threatens dozens of former high-level officials linked to public works projects during the presidencies of Néstor Carlos Kirchner (2003-2007) and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (2007-2015). Most notably are the investigations into Julio de Vido and Daniel Cameron. Julio de Vido, a former minister of federal planning under Fernández, turned himself into authorities in October 2018. De Vido is accused of being part of the “Road Works” scandal, which involves the alleged embezzlement of public funds through tender processes for road works in the former president’s home province of Santa Cruz, as well as other infrastructure projects under his supervision. Meanwhile, former Energy Minister Daniel Cameron is being investigated as part of a case known as “Skanska II,” where irregularities in the expansion of gas pipelines in the country are being linked to a corruption scheme with the collaboration of Odebrecht. However, the level of corruption into the Kirchners’ is more profound. Reports suggest that an additional 14 businessmen and five former employees are also being investigated for many illicit activities in cooperation with the Brazilian construction giant. Bolivia: Bolivia’s has a history of favorable dealings with Brazilian companies that dates back to 1987. In that year, then-Energy Minister Carlos Morales Landívar was accused of using his political influence to favor the Brazilian company, Andrade Gutierrez. Now, Landívar is being accused of being involved in 2003 with Camargo Correa — among the 13 major companies in Brazil under investigation in the Lava Jato case — when he was minister of services and public works. However, the names directly linked to the Odebrecht case are the former president and current 2019 presidential hopeful Carlos Mesa and his successor, Supreme Court Justice and former president Eduardo Rodríguez Veltzé. Both are being investigated for allegedly receiving bribes from Odebrecht during their presidencies, which spanned between 2003 and 2006. Mesa’s investigation could play a pivotal role in the presidential elections that are to be held in October. A conviction in Mesa’s case could leave the door wide open for Evo Morales to be reelected. Brazil: Over the past five years in Brazil, more than 77 company executives have agreed to plea bargains, one president was impeached, another former president is currently in jail, and his successor is now also being investigated as a result of the Odebrecht scandal. That’s just a slight glimpse of the far-reaching impact that the Lava Jato case has had on South America’s largest nation. On February 6, currently jailed former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, was indicted for additional charges that would add 13 extra years to his current sentence. Lula is accused of receiving illicit benefits during his mandate from 2003 to 2010. In addition to Lula, other people close to his inner circle have been accused and arrested for corruption. One of those people, former Chamber of Deputies President Eduardo Cunha, has been in prison since 2016. Cunha is accused of receiving a $5 million bribe. However, despite his current arrest, Brazilian prosecutors have requested further charges against him. Meanwhile, Aécio Neves, a former governor and 2014 presidential candidate, is accused of receiving bribes in exchange for support for legislation mainly regarding works that were of interest to Odebrecht when he was governor of Minas Gerais state. Neves’ investigation is ongoing while he maintains a seat as a senator for Minas Gerais. Lastly, former President Michel Temer (2016-2018) has made headlines as Brazil’s federal police have asked for him to be charged with bribery and money laundering. According to officials, while vice-president in 2014, Temer and his Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (Partido do Movimento Democrático Brasileiro – PMDB) received more than $2 million from Odebrecht. Now that Sérgio Moro, who was once leading the Lava Jato corruption probe, is the new justice minister under President Jair Bolsonaro, close attention will be focused on sweeping new legislation that he has proposed to combat corruption.  

Argentina’s Booming Marijuana Trade Crippling Jails

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A province in northeast Argentina is running out of jail space after droves of marijuana trafficking arrests, illustrating how the South American nation continues to grow as both a transit hub and local drug market. Federal judges in Argentina’s Misiones province have warned that its jails and federal prison are filled to capacity, forcing them to house detainees in police stations and barracks for the Gendarmerie. Criminal proceedings are also increasingly delayed due to a lack of jail space, Clarín reported on February 11. The complications stem from Misiones’ booming marijuana trade. Authorities in the province seized 126 metric tons of marijuana in 2018, nearly 70 percent of the total amount of the drug seized throughout the country last year, Clarín reported separately.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Marijuana

In the Puerto Libertad municipality of Misiones alone, the Argentine Naval Prefecture seized 34 tons of marijuana in the first half of 2018, an increase of 221 percent compared to the same time during 2017. Nationwide, authorities tallied 87 drug trafficking arrests every 24 hours, many of which were in the area, according to Clarín.  Misiones is located in the so-called “Tri-Border” region — a drug smuggling and criminal hotspot where Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina meet. Misiones’ location on the Paraná River, which continues on to the capital Buenos Aires and the Atlantic Ocean, also makes it a key point for transporting marijuana shipments from neighboring Paraguay, South America’s largest marijuana producer

InSight Crime Analysis

The crippling of the penitentiary system in Misiones shows how this border province has turned into a strategic location for marijuana traffickers seeking to reach the country’s sizable urban markets in Buenos Aires and Rosario, which are also key transshipment points Corrientes province — just to the south of Misiones and pinned on three sides by Paraguay, Brazil and Uruguay — has also seen a surge in marijuana trafficking.  Indeed, in March 2017, authorities arrested the mayor, vice mayor and police chief in the northern city of Itatí along the Paraná River in a massive security operation. The mayor and vice mayor allegedly colluded with a local drug lord and were in charge of “coordinating part of the plot to move narcotics and intervening in favor of members of the association to ensure their impunity.” A formal member of Argentina’s Naval Prefecture was also recently arrested in connection to a 10-ton shipment of marijuana in the city of Ituzaingó in northeast Corrientes. 

SEE ALSO: Argentina News and Profile

Local dynamics in Misiones and Corrientes — home to four of Argentina’s five marijuana trafficking hotspots — illustrate the challenges that local institutions are facing in responding to the country’s marijuana trade. The industry also appears to be attracting one of South America’s most powerful organized crime groups, Brazil’s First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC). In July 2018, police forces in Misiones thwarted an attempt by suspected PCC members to free another alleged member from one of the province’s jails. The PCC has aggressively expanded its operations across the region. With Argentine authorities already struggling to confront the marijuana trade, the addition of the PCC could further exhaust the country’s security institutions. *This article was written with assistance from InSight Crime investigator Tristan Clavel

Argentina’s Castedo Clan Continues to Survive Despite Top Arrests

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Authorities in Bolivia have arrested a major player in the Castedo Clan, one of the most powerful drug trafficking clans in northern Argentina, but it is unlikely this will cripple the organization just yet. Members of Bolivia’s anti-narcotics squad (Fuerza Especial de Lucha Contra el Narcotráfico — FELCN) arrested Mario Morfulis Herrera of Argentina’s Castedo Clan in the town of Yacuíba in southern Bolivia in mid-January. He was then handed over to authorities in Argentina, the National Gendarmerie announced in a January 22 press release. Morfulis Herrera is the brother-in-law of Delfín Castedo, considered by authorities to be one of Argentina’s most prominent drug traffickers. Delfín headed the Castedo Clan before he was arrested in July 2016 on drug trafficking charges after years on the run. The group has allegedly held a monopoly on cocaine trafficking in northern Argentina across two decades, according to La Nación. Castedo’s sister, Roxana — who is married to Morfulis Herrera — owned some 20,000 hectares of land in Bolivia, while the clan had another 30,000 hectares of land under their control in northern Argentina. In 2016, authorities reported that the network trafficked four metric tons of cocaine per month from Bolivia to Europe.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Criminal Migration

After cocaine shipments entered Argentina from Bolivia, according to La Nación, they left Quitilipi in northeast Chaco province disguised in charcoal shipments, then arrived at the ports of Rosario and Zárate before being shipped to Spain and Portugal. Morfulis Herrera is a dual Bolivian-Argentine citizen and lived in Yacuíba, which made him one of the main pillars of the Castedo Clan’s cocaine trafficking operations in Bolivia. The Castedo Clan has suffered a series of blows in recent years. Delfín’s brother, Raúl Castedo, alias “Ula,” was arrested a decade ago in Bolivia and was later extradited to Argentina in 2016. He had well-established contacts in Santa Cruz de la Sierra in eastern Bolivia, one of the country’s most important coca base-producing areas and where the group would acquire its product, according to La Nación. Two of Delfín’s other brothers, Rafael and Roberto, are also in jail on charges of belonging to a criminal organization.

InSight Crime Analysis

Authorities have arrested several high-ranking members of the Castedo Clan over the years, but the group has continued to find a way to operate, and the most recent arrest of Morfulis Herrera is unlikely to be the final blow that dismantles it altogether. One explanation for this is the fact that the clan has appeared to have sole control of nearly every link in the drug trafficking chain in northern Argentina for the better part of the last 20 years, according to authorities. Delfín Castedo’s sister, Roxana, still reportedly owns large swaths of strategic territory on the Bolivian side of the Argentina-Bolivia border. 

SEE ALSO: Argentina News and Profile

The Castedo Clan seems to be much more established and sophisticated than other transnational groups in the country. These types of groups in Argentina have traditionally been localized, cross-border structures that would move drugs into Argentina and then sell them off to other groups who had the know-how to ship them to international markets. In addition, the Castedo Clan has been able to recover from previous arrests, and its leaders appear to have succeeded in managing drug operations from behind bars. In that regard, the Castedo Clan strongly resembles the infamous Monos trafficking group, which continues to rule over large parts of the major port city of Rosario’s microtrafficking landscape even after a historic trial resulted in convictions and prison time for several of its top members. These groups are a reminder of growing warnings that government control may be fading behind prisons across the country.

Human Trafficking Conviction Rates on the Rise in Latin America

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Although human trafficking continues to surge on the continent, improved legislation and the investment in social platforms are leading to higher human trafficking conviction rates in parts of Latin America. The 2018 United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) report shows that a group of countries in the Americas have considerably increased their conviction rate numbers between 2014 and 2017. In 2014, the UNODC report showed that only 10 percent of prosecuted cases in Latin America resulted in convictions. This had risen to 26 percent in 2016, showing that ongoing efforts have been made at both ends of the scale by countries with once anemic conviction rates, and those with existing measures in place. According to the UNODC report, Honduras saw the greatest improvement from 2014 to 2017 with a 31 percent increase in conviction rates, Ecuador came in second with 23 percent, Argentina third with 22 Percent, followed by Costa Rica and Guatemala who registered a 21 percent increase respectively. But countries such as Bolivia, Uruguay, El Salvador and Venezuela registered conviction rates of less than five percent in 2017. In Argentina, for example, conviction rates rose from 52 percent in 2014 to 74 percent in 2017, although prosecutions dropped from 138 cases to just 51. The government has credited legislature such as Law 26.842, which cracks down further on human trafficking and provides tools to assist victims.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Human Trafficking

Ecuador has also shown a measure of improvement in the number of convictions, although prosecutions have not risen. In 2014, 192 people were prosecuted for human trafficking in the country. But only 14 of those cases resulted in a conviction, representing a rate of less than one percent. In comparison, 178 people were prosecuted in 2017 of which 43 resulted in convictions, resulting in a 24.5 percent rate. In 2014, Ecuador established tougher human trafficking laws with the implementation of Article 91 of the Organic Comprehensive Criminal Code (COIP). This was accompanied by the creation of social entities, such as Casa Bonita, that provide health, education, psychological, and legal support to victims of human trafficking.

InSight Crime Analysis

Ecuador and Argentina are but two examples of regional efforts to combat a crime that affects more than 1.4 million people in Latin America. Their commitment is highlighted in their recent improvements that have been recognized by the 2018 Trafficking in Persons Report by the US State Department. This progress saw the US State Department list Argentina among Tier 1 Countries, stating that the country “had made key achievements,” such as increasing prosecutions, convicting complicit officials and improving data collection. In addition, the Ministries of Security, Justice and Human Rights continue to allocate resources to create free hot-lines that facilitate the reporting of potential cases of human trafficking.

SEE ALSO: Trans Women: The Unseen Victims of Human Trafficking

Alejandra Mangano, an Argentine prosecutor for the Attorney’s Office for People Trafficking and Exploitation (Procuraduría de Trata y Explotación de Personas – PROTEX), told InSight Crime that new laws have increased the current conviction rate by easing the judicial procedure to follow when prosecuting human trafficking suspects. Ecuador remains a Tier 2 country. But the report acknowledges that “the government [has] demonstrated increasing efforts by prosecuting more suspected traffickers and formally establishing and funding the Directorate for the Prevention of Trafficking in Persons and Migrant Smuggling…to coordinate the government’s anti-trafficking efforts.” Historically, Ecuador has also paid the price for lax immigration regulations, seeing thousands of migrants from other countries smuggled through its borders illegally. In 2016, a constant flow of Cubans arriving in Quito finally saw Ecuador change its stance, deporting migrants en masse back to Cuba and being accused of not giving them a fair hearing. Despite considerable efforts, Latin America continues to register high levels of human trafficking. Certain worrying signs are also present. For example, in Central America and the Caribbean, the proportion of human trafficking victims linked to sexual exploitation rose from 55 percent to 75 percent in just two years from 2014 to 2016. The region also continues to be used by human trafficking rings from all around the world, with nationals from 96 countries being detected in North American countries. The drivers behind human trafficking are complex and difficult to isolate, although common solutions such as raising public awareness, following money laundering trails and cooperating transnationally have yielded benefits. The socio-political and economic crisis in Venezuela and Nicaragua continues to put thousands, if not millions, at risk, which criminal groups seek to exploit. The criminal economy of human trafficking is expected to grow in 2019. It remains to be seen if the social investments and central institutions in the region will continue to make positive gains in regards to detecting, prosecuting and convicting criminal actors.

InSight Crime’s 2018 Homicide Round-Up

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With a worsening crisis in Venezuela, dark days in Nicaragua, an ever more fragile peace process in Colombia, new governments and new ideas in Brazil, Mexico and beyond, 2018 was a year of turmoil across Latin America and the Caribbean. Homicide levels have reflected this uncertainty, rising sharply in parts, continuing to drop in others. In its Homicide Round-Up, InSight Crime looks into the murder rates country by country and the factors behind them.  Venezuela: 81.4 per 100,000 Venezuela has not given up its status as the Latin American country with the highest homicide rate, at 81.4 homicides per 100,000 people, or 23,047 murders. While this number is slightly down from the 26,616 murders reported in 2017, the country remains wracked by severe political, economic, and social conflicts. A report from the Venezuelan Violence Observatory (Observatorio Venezolano de Violencia – OVV), the only public source of homicides in the country, put the murder rate at 81.4 in 2018, down from 89 in 2017. But this drop might not be cause for optimism, as it is based on 2011 population figures and does not take into account the massive migration of an estimated three million Venezuelans fleeing crisis. The OVV also found that this supposed reduction in homicides contrasts with a sharp increase in killings by security forces — 7,523 victims in 2018 as opposed to 5,535 in 2017 — accounting for an astounding 32 percent of all homicides. While the government has not published official crime statistics for 2018, InSight Crime had access to a leaked document from the Venezuelan Observatory for Public Security, a department within the Interior Ministry. This spoke of an official rate of 10,573 homicides in 2018, or just 33 per 100,000 people, showing that the government does not include cases of “resisting authority” or other categories, such as victims of stray bullets. El Salvador: 51 per 100,000 El Salvador logged 3,340 homicides in 2018, a 15 percent drop from 2017. The resulting homicide rate of 51 per 100,000 people continues the downward trend seen in El Salvador in recent years. As recently as 2016, the country topped InSight Crime’s regional rankings with an alarming rate of 81.2 per 100,000. In 2017, the rate dropped by 20 homicides per 100,000, but the country remained second on the list, only behind Venezuela. El Salvador’s homicide rate has long been linked to its two dominant and deadly gangs: the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and the Barrio 18. Though there may be a number of causes for the reduction in killings, such as the gangs forgoing internecine wars, the government has claimed its “mano dura,” or what are euphemistically termed “medidas extraordinarias” (extraordinary measures) now, was largely responsible. That same crackdown, however, explains a United Nations report that found extrajudicial killings were on the rise and likely to go unpunished. During the first two weeks of the new year, 126 people were murdered. Police officials blamed the gangs for the bloodshed, accusing them of a show of force ahead of presidential elections on February 3. Jamaica: 47 per 100,000 In an address to the House of Representatives, Jamaica’s Prime Minister Andrew Holness said homicides decreased by 21.9 percent last year. The country recorded 1,287 murders in 2018 for a homicide rate of 47 per 100,000 people. The police have attributed this improvement to the creation of Zones of Special Operation (ZOSO), areas in which the military joins in policing efforts. As part of his plan to bring the murder rate to 16 per 100,000 over the next decade, Holness has advocated for 20 more special security zones to be designated in 2019. Last year’s drop in homicides, however, comes after a near 20 percent rise in killings in 2017, which was linked to the poor rollout of the ZOSO plan and similar security crackdowns.

(InSight Crime map of homicide rates in Latin America and the Caribbean. Click the picture for a larger version.)

Honduras: 40 per 100,000* Between January to November 2018, Honduras saw 3,310 murders, according to the Observatory of Violence at the National Autonomous University of Honduras (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Honduras – UNAH). This would point to a homicide rate of 40 per 100,000 people, a minor decrease from the 42.8 per 100,000 registered in 2017, when there were 3,791 murders. After hitting a high of 85.5 murders per 100,000 people in 2011, Honduras’ murder rate was cut in half by 2017. As in neighboring El Salvador, security officials attributed the downward trend to a government crackdown against drug traffickers and gangs. But officials have also blamed limited year-over-year reductions in the homicide rate on the very same security strategy, saying it leads to retaliation by criminal groups. In the first two weeks of 2019, 30 people were murdered in eight separate massacres, showing that the regular cocktail of gang violence, high levels of impunity and corruption continue. Trinidad and Tobago: 37.5 per 100,000 The year proved to be the second deadliest in the country’s history with 516 homicides, behind only 2008 when 550 people were killed. Despite its relatively small population of 1.3 million people, Trinidad and Tobago has seen violence grow steadily worse in recent years. Impunity continues to be a major challenge, as the Caribbean nation’s police officials have admitted that at least 83 percent of the murder cases from last year remain unsolved. Belize: 35.9 per 100,000 Despite being the smallest country in Central America, Belize has faced a stubbornly high homicide rate. While official stats have yet to come out, local media tallied 143 murders in 2018, just two less than in 2012, the country’s most violent year. The government has denied that Belize is a staging base for criminal groups such as the Zetas and Jalisco Cartel – New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG) from Mexico, or the MS13 from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. However, a persistently high homicide rate shows that while Belize may have stayed out of the headlines, organized crime appears to be a major threat. Mexico: 25.8 per 100,000 Enrique Peña Nieto’s tenure as Mexico’s president ended with homicides at a record high. In 2018, the country logged 33,341 murders, up from 31,174 in 2017, according to data from the National System of Public Security. This brings the murder rate to 25.8 per 100,000 up from 22.5 in 2017 and 16.2 in 2016. The spike in homicides has been spurred by the continued fragmentation of larger cartels, and the government’s inability to react to the less organized, smaller gangs, which kill for control of territory. The new president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has reversed his security plans, advocating for the creation of a national guard and keeping the military in the streets to try and stem the bloodshed after an average of 91 people were killed per day last year. Brazil: 25 per 100,000* 2017 marked a sad record for Brazil: 175 people were killed every day.  Last year saw slight improvement, with 39,183 murders between January and September, down from 44,733 killings in the same period in 2017, according to the Brazilian Public Security Forum (Fórum Brasileiro de Segurança Pública). If this reduction held, it would bring the murder rate to 25 per 100,000 people for the year. But insecurity and violence continue to be top concerns for much of the population, as Brazil struggles to find effective ways to stop violent crime. The army was sent in to Rio de Janeiro in 2017, the latest example of a militarization strategy that has consistently failed in Latin America. Jair Bolsonaro was propelled to the presidency largely by pledging to allow police to shoot criminals and to simplify gun ownership laws. So far in 2019, criminal groups have unleashed an assault on the state of Ceará, and the government has responded to the violence with federal troops, turning northeastern Brazil into a battle zone. Such outright conflict may add to the body count, meaning Brazil will be unable to address the root causes of its consistently high murder rate. Colombia: 25 per 100,000* After seeing its lowest level of violence in 42 years in 2017, Colombia saw a small resurgence of violence in 2018, increasing to 12,311 homicides from 11,381 in 2017. This four percent rise takes the homicide rate to 25 per 100,000 people, up from 24 last year. In 2018, Colombia saw an increase and diversification of criminal groups in Colombia, including former members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC), who have gathered into ex-FARC Mafia groups that are growing in strength, as well as members of the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN). The increasing number of FARC dissidents abandoning the peace process and the breakdown in talks with the ELN have emboldened these organizations. Furthermore, violence has risen along the border with Venezuela while social leaders have been killed as a result of fighting over control of illicit crops and land. Guatemala: 22.4 per 100,000 Guatemala continued to show marked improvements in its homicide rate, ending the year at 22.4 per 100,000 people. The country recorded 3,881 killings in 2018, down from 4,409 murders and a homicide rate of 26.1 in 2017, according to government officials. But civil society figures tell a different story. The Mutual Support Group (Grupo de Apoyo Mutuo – GAM), a non-governmental organization which tracks crime in the country, said the official tally was short by over 1,000 homicides, placing the total at 4,914 and the murder rate at 28 per 100,000. Either way, Guatemala remains less plagued with violence than its Northern Triangle neighbors in Honduras and El Salvador. The findings of InSight Crime’s 2017 investigation into homicides in Guatemala remain valid. President Jimmy Morales’ war with the anti-corruption body known as the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG) has left little room for the government to improve on rampant impunity for murders and faulty data-gathering about such crimes. Puerto Rico: 20 per 100,000 Puerto Rico saw its murder rate remain at 20 per 100,000 people in 2018, about four times that of the mainland United States. Records show that 641 people were killed last year, a dip from the 710 murders in 2017, and far below the record 1,164 homicides in 2011. Local drug gangs are largely to blame for the body count, with the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) saying some 60 percent of homicides there are drug-related. This year, Puerto Rico has already seen a wave of killings, worrying residents and federal law enforcement. A police force struggling to maintain its ranks, as well as solve crimes, will only fuel insecurity on the island. Costa Rica: 11.7 per 100,000 With just 17 fewer homicides in 2018, Costa Rica saw its homicide rate remain relatively stable. The Central American country counted 586 murders, dropping the murder rate slightly from 12.1 to 11.7 per 100,000 people. Until last year’s drop, the homicide rate had steadily increased since 2012. The country’s Judicial Investigation Agency (Organismo de Investigación Judicial – OIJ) had even predicted the same for 2018. Traditionally one of Central America’s more peaceful nations, the country has suffered from rising levels of crime recently, thanks to its position as a key transit point for Colombian cocaine. The government has struggled to respond to an increase in available drugs, which has led to groups fighting for control of local markets. Uruguay: 11.2 per 100,000 Uruguay recorded a record high 382 murders in 2018. With 99 more homicides than in 2017, this marked a brutal year-over-year increase of 35 percent and a homicide rate of 11.2 per 100,000 people. These statistics are drawn from the Propuestas Foundation (Fundapro), linked to the opposition Colorado Party. Official figures have only been released for the first half of the year, showing 218 murders, as compared to 131 from January-June 2017. For one of the traditionally more peaceful and stable countries in the region, this sudden rise is alarming. Authorities are convinced fighting between organized crime groups is to blame. However, this may provide a convenient scapegoat to justify a militarized response when other problems, such as lackluster resolution and conviction rates for homicides, may also have contributed to the situation. Dominican Republic: 10.4 per 100,000* The Citizen Security Observatory reported that 801 murders were registered in the Caribbean nation during the first nine months of 2018, a drop of 145 when compared to the 946 homicides registered for the same period in 2017. Although this shows a continued downward trend that has lasted since 2011, a recent poll shows that public insecurity remains a top concern for the Dominican population. Panama: 9.6 per 100,000* In December, Panama’s Public Ministry released a report showing that there were 401 murders between January and November of 2018, about a dozen fewer than the 378 deaths in 2017. At this count, the homicide rate sits at 9.6 per 100,000 people. The report highlighted that more than 40 percent (169) of the incidents occurred in the capital, Panama City. National Police Director Alonso Vega Pino says that the slight increase is “directly related to organized crime.” Panama’s geography makes it a vital transit point for illegal trade in the region. An internal investigation into an international arms trafficking network in October 2018 illustrated the country’s ongoing challenges with confronting corruption and organized crime. Peru: 7.8 per 100,000* In 2017, Peru registered 2,487 murders, slightly up from the 2,435 in 2016, for a homicide rate of 7.8 per 100,000. No data is available for 2018 so far. The country has maintained relatively low levels of violent crime in recent decades, though institutionalized corruption is threatening resources dedicated to fighting Peru’s ongoing drug trafficking challenges. Bolivia: 6.3 per 100,000 During a televised news conference, Bolivia’s Interior Minister Carlos Romero announced that the country had registered a homicide rate of 6.3 per 100,000 people in 2018, a more than two percent improvement compared to the first half of 2017, when the country recorded a rate of 8.5 per 100,000. The announcement comes as the country prepares for primary presidential elections on January 27.  In the past year, opposition groups who firmly reject Evo Morales decision to run for a fourth consecutive term have conducted mass demonstrations and national strikes. The presidential elections, which will take place in October, are likely to take the focus away from national security issues at a time when Brazil’s gangs are moving into the South American nation. Ecuador: 5.7 per 100,000 Ecuador saw 975 murders in 2018, 18 more than the 957 recorded in 2017, giving the country a homicide rate of 5.7 per 100,000 people, according to figures from the national police. Less than a decade ago, Ecuador faced murder rates three times as high, but a process of so-called “gang legalization” has helped drastically reduce killings. However, an increase in drug trafficking from Colombia to Ecuador has renewed concerns about violence. The high-profile killing of three journalists by an ex-FARC mafia group has also made cross-border security a priority for the government. Argentina: 5.2 per 100,000* In the midst of a deep economic crisis, Argentina continues to have one of the lowest homicide rates on the continent. Argentina recorded a homicide rate of 5.2 per 100,000 people in 2017, a slight decrease from 6.6 in 2015, according to Security Ministry figures. No data was available for 2018 so far. Low levels of violence, however, haven’t translated into security. In December, Security Minister Patricia Bullrich signed a decree giving federal forces greater use of deadly force. The measure, expected to be implemented six months from now, is already creating controversy and uncertainty within the Argentine population. Paraguay: 5.1 per 100,000* The latest homicide report by Paraguay’s National Observatory of Security and Citizen Coexistence indicates that a total of 350 murders were recorded between January and September of 2018. This statistic yields a murder rate of 5.1 per 100,000, considerably lower than the homicide rate of 7.8 recorded in 2017. However, Interior Minister Juan Ernesto Villamayor recently stated in a radio interview that the country must reevaluate its transnational strategies with Argentina and Brazil to combat organized crime in the region. The First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC), Brazil’s most powerful gang, continues to threaten the country’s security. Chile: 2.7 per 100,000 Chile continues its reign as the country with the lowest homicide rate in Latin America. From January to October 2018, a total of 488 killings were recorded, accounting for a homicide rate of 2.7 per 100,000 people. This is even lower than the country’s homicide rate of 3.3 that was registered for the same period of time in 2017. Even with low levels of homicides, Chile has seen random acts of violence. An explosive artifact, for example, was detonated at a local bus stop in the capital city of Santiago, resulting in multiple injuries. With organized crime expected to strengthen in 2019, it remains to be seen if Chile can continue to uphold its low levels of violence. Nicaragua: N/A In 2017, Nicaragua registered a homicide rate of 7 per 100,000 people, with 431 total murders, continuing a positive trend of lower violence seen over several years. However, levels of violence soared in 2018 due to the brutal repression of civilian protesters by the regime of President Daniel Ortega. Incomplete statistics of killings have been provided by civil society and non-governmental organizations. The Nicaraguan Association for Human Rights (Asociación Nicaragüense Pro Derechos Humanos – ANDPH) recorded in July that at least 448 had been killed and 595 people disappeared. Further information from the group has not been issued since it closed its offices in Nicaragua in August due to consistent government threats. * Murder rates calculated by InSight Crime based on partial homicide data for 2018 and the country’s 2017 estimated population total, according to the Population Reference Bureau. These will be updated as full 2018 figures become available.

From Prison in Argentina, Monos Leaders Show Power

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A violent attack on a courthouse days after the sentencing of 34 members of Argentina’s most notorious drug trafficking organization shows that the culmination of the ambitious case against the group has not taken away its ability to wreak havoc.  On 10 December, armed men attacked the main courthouse in the city of Rosario, home to the criminal organization known as “the Monos,” La Nación reported. This is the fifth such attack in the space of a few months. The security secretary of the province of Santa Fe, where Rosario is located, said authorities suspect the attack might be related to the closing of a nightclub that was one of the main sources of financing for the Monos. The attack came just days after a federal court in the city sentenced 34 members of the criminal organization to prison terms on drug trafficking charges for the first time. The organization’s two leaders, Ariel Máximo Cantero, alias “Guille”, and Jorge Emanuel Chamorro, alias “Ema”, were sentenced to 15 and 17 years in prison, respectively. In addition, Vanesa Barrios, Cantero’s wife, and Jésica Lloan, Chamorro’s partner were sentenced to 12 years in jail each. Cantero’s mother, Patricia Celestina Contreras, will also spend 8 years behind bars. The women were accused of coordinating drug production and sales logistics, following orders from Cantero and Chamorro while they were imprisoned in the jail of Piñero, located 20 kilometres away from Rosario. Cantero is now serving a 22-year sentence on racketeering and murder charges; Chamorro is serving 12 years on charges of leading a criminal organization in a different prison. Prosecutor Federico Reynares Solari said he was satisfied with the latest sentencing and said the courts had reached the “highest levels of the organization.” The defense lawyer, Fausto Yrure, said he did not believe the evidence presented at the trial proved his clients’ responsibility and confirmed they will appeal the sentence. The Monos, led by members of the powerful Cantero family, is one of the most infamous criminal organizations in Argentina. They mostly control drug trafficking in Rosario, a strategic port city situated on the Paraná River that acts as a transit point for drug shipments coming from neighboring Bolivia and Paraguay. They have been blamed for a wave of violence in 2013 that made Rosario one of the most violent cities in Argentina. More recently, the homicide rate has dropped. But a series of threats and violent attacks against judges, prosecutors, and witnesses involved in the case has raised alarms.

InSight Crime Analysis

The sentence against the leaders of the Monos was expected to be the final nail in the coffin for the criminal organization, but the attacks that have followed their imprisonment show that the group still has a grip on Rosario. The case against the Monos was without parallel in Rosario. After having actively controlled criminal activities in the city for nearly two decades, the group faced prosecution for the first time. The sentencing of so many members of the group was the culmination of one of the most ambitious investigations taken on by authorities in the South American nation. What’s more, the leaders of the group were imprisoned, showing that prosecutors investigated the Monos at all levels, something particularly difficult to do when it comes to family clans.

SEE ALSO: Argentina News and Profile

The investigation, called “Los Patrones”, unveiled what many knew but had not been able to prove, at least this extensively, until now: police collusion with criminal organizations and high levels of corruption within the prison system that allowed the Monos to operate freely. When authorities searched Chamorro’s prison cell in 2015, they discovered a landline and a mobile phone where he had saved contact details that included police officers, an anti-narcotics agent, and the chief of Rosario Central’s Barra Brava, who is currently under investigation. By sentencing, in April this year, a number of police officers who collaborated with the Monos, authorities sent a strong message that corruption within the security forces will not be tolerated. But the wave of threats and violent attacks against judges, prosecutors, and witnesses, allegedly ordered by the group’s leaders from within prison, shows their power might still be intact.