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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.  

New Book Highlights Flaws in Ecuador-Colombia Border Security Strategy

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The high-profile kidnapping and murder of three media workers in March 2018 was a landmark moment for Ecuador, and cast a new spotlight on the violence generated by Colombia’s ex-FARC mafia groups operating along the border. Yet almost one year later, doubts and questions linger about the official version of events and the actions authorities took at the time. In their new book, “Rehenes” (Hostages), Arturo Torres and María Belén Arroyo explore the question of how and why the three journalists were executed. The reporting required deep investigative work in Ecuador and Colombia, providing insight into the reality on the ground in this strategic border region. When dissident group from the now largely demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) guerrillas — known as the Oliver Sinisterra Front (Frente Oliver Sinisterra – FOS) — launched a series of attacks on Ecuador’s security forces, the El Comercio journalists decided to investigate one such attack in the border village of Mataje. Sometime on their way to the village, the journalists were kidnapped by a group of Oliver Sinisterra Front members in Ecuador. They were later moved across the border to Colombia, according to the book.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Ex-FARC Mafia

Once the kidnapping became public, the governments of Colombia and Ecuador agreed to halt military operations against the Oliver Sinisterra Front to safeguard the lives of the journalists. However, the investigation by the books authors uncovered several sources who identified secret joint security operations carried out while the journalists were being held hostage. Colombia’s special police forces allegedly deployed to Ecuador and then attacked the Oliver Sinisterra Front in Colombia. What’s more, an interview with a detained Oliver Sinisterra Front member, Jesús Vargas Cuajiboy, alias “Reinel,” uncovered new information about the journalists’ slayings. Reinel was responsible for continually monitoring the hostages as they mobilized, and he claimed the ex-FARC mafia group intended to release the journalists within two days. However, persistent military operations were unnerving the front’s leader, Ecuadorean national Walter Arizala Vernaza, alias “Guacho.”  Guacho ultimately concluded that it was too much of a risk to keep the journalists alive. The investigation revealed that they were killed on April 7, five days prior to the date when they were said to have been executed.

InSight Crime Analysis

The El Comercio murders show how Ecuador’s government was ill-prepared to deal with the sweeping ex-FARC mafia groups that filtered into northern Ecuador in the aftermath of the Colombian government’s 2016 peace deal with the FARC guerrillas. It wasn’t until a surge in violence in early 2018 that Ecuador’s government even took steps to address the lack of security along its border, quickly boosting security cooperation with Colombia in order to reinforce the presence of forces there, as well as lay the groundwork for improved intelligence sharing and joint operations. This also paved the way for the clandestine operations exposed by Torres and Arroyo. With marked improvements in bilateral security cooperation between Ecuador and Colombia, Guacho’s days were always numbered. A joint security operation in December 2018 ultimately allowed Colombian authorities the space to track him down and and kill him.

SEE ALSO: Colombia News and Profiles

While these military actions impacted the Oliver Sinisterra Front and were designed to deal with the crisis on the northern border, Torres and Arroyo conclude in their book that such operations are far from enough to secure this strategic region. Indeed, while the Oliver Sinisterra Front grabbed the majority of public attention, it isn’t the only criminal organization operating on the Colombia-Ecuador border. Torres and Arroyo noted the presence of other groups, such as La Constru and Los Comuneros operating in northeast Ecuador. La Constru is a drug trafficking network with roots stretching back to Colombia’s demobilized paramilitary counter-insurgents, which have long operated across the border in southwest Putumayo department. Police intelligence reports seen by InSight Crime suggest the criminal group is now working with Pedro Oberman Goyes Cortés, alias “Sinaloa,” the leader of a rapidly expanding ex-FARC mafia network. Security forces believe Sinaloa has now crossed the border into Ecuador, and his group has been accused of a deadly attack against anti-narcotics agents in the province of Sucumbios in January this year. Meanwhile, Los Comuneros is an organization composed of FARC-trained militias, which have established extortion and kidnapping networks.  According to Torres and Arroyo’s research, the group is expanding into Colombia’s southern municipalities. Other criminal organizations, such as Los Comuneros and La Constru, have been able to lurk in the shadows and extend their control over illegal economies while authorities homed in on Guacho and his ex-FARC mafia group. The focus on Guacho and the northwestern border has also had another effect — Ecuadorean anti-narcotics officials told InSight Crime that drug routes are now migrating east, relocating to the provinces of Sucumbios and Carchi to escape the pressure.

Large Deposit Brings Illegal Gold Rush to Ecuador

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The largest gold deposit in Ecuador is in the hands of organized crime. At the end of 2017, while authorities in the northern province of Imbabura were working on the initial stages of building a road to the parish of Buenos Aires in San Miguel de Urcuquí canton, a backhoe uncovered a gold vein that experts say could be one of the continent’s largest. Within 24 hours, nearly 700 people were already illegally mining the gold, Henry Troya, the then-deputy minister of mining in Ecuador, told InSight Crime. And that was just the beginning. The news of such a large deposit attracted both Ecuadoreans and foreign nationals from Colombia, Peru, Brazil and Venezuela. The number of illegal miners swelled along with other illicit economies. Troya estimates that there are now 3,000 people involved in mining in the area. Other sources whom InSight Crime consulted have put the tally at up to 10,000. Criminal structures of all kinds have set up shop: among them extortionists, mafiosos and dissident members from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC). With high-powered weapons that easily surpass the capabilities of government authorities, these criminal groups control the mine, which draws up to $500,000 in illegal profits per month. The majority of miners are artisanal and small-scale, working with hand-operated machinery. Most miners convert the rock into dust and then transport it approximately 800 kilometers to Ecuador’s southern province of El Oro. There, the ore is processed and legalized through companies that have already been in operation at the border with Peru. Recently, however, evidence of more sophisticated methods, including leaching pools and processing plants, have been discovered near the Buenos Aires mine in Ecuador. Five to 10 trucks travel in caravans daily, receiving up to $150,000 per trip, which the illegal organizations use to pay authorities to allow their passage. They are escorted by armed vehicles and a van, where the money is stored. A military truck is known to have been among the vehicles used to transport the mined gold.

SEE ALSO: Ecuador News and Profile

Authorities arrived in Buenos Aires towards the end of 2017 but found that they were late to the game: the miners were heavily armed and had extensive control over the area. They calculated that it would take at least five days of large-scale armed interventions and three months of patrolling for the government to regain full control of the territory. This proved untenable for authorities, who ceased their operations. A source consulted by InSight Crime said that certain political actors may be benefitting from the illegal mining. And they, of course, would not be interested in dismantling the criminal structures operating at the gold deposit. Authorities, however, did carry out one of Ecuador’s largest operations against illegal mining on January 17. “Operation Mega-Avalanche 2: Bright Dawn” yielded six firearms, ammunition, explosives and 31 metric tons of mining material. Authorities raided 15 houses and arrested 24 people, including a Colombian national. But those arrested were released after only a few days and likely returned immediately to the mine.

InSight Crime Analysis

Although Ecuador has experienced gold rushes in the past, this level of open involvement by organized crime and armed gangs is unprecedented. Buenos Aires is the third location to witness significant illegal mining in the country’s history. Two earlier instances occurred between 1970 and 1990, one of which took place in Nambija, Zamora province, and the other in a mining area in El Oro province. While mafia-like structures cropped up in both cases, the situation in Buenos Aires represents the first time that organized crime structures have been seen participating in illegal mining in Ecuador. The convergence of both illegal artisanal miners and organized crime structures — many of whom seem more than willing to protect a potent source of income — has simply overwhelmed authorities. What efforts the Ecuadorean government has made through the police, politicians or the Mining Regulation and Monitoring Agency (Agencia de Regulación y Control Minero – ARCOM) are not enough to counteract the rapidly growing numbers of miners and weapons now circulating in the region. A senior Ecuadorean police official, who asked to remain anonymous, told InSight Crime that the Oliver Sinisterra Front (Frente Oliver Sinisterra – FOS) of FARC dissidents is operating in Buenos Aires. He added that the FOS may be providing funds for the mines and running extortion operations. According to the official, there are also two groups led by men known as “Javier” and “Perico” controlling territory in the area. They have been extorting everyone from the people who control mine entrances to the owners of restaurants that the miners frequent.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Ex-FARC Mafia

It may be that the high profits from such activities are behind many of the disputes among the criminal groups that have descended upon Buenos Aires and are jostling for territory. Possibly in relation to the groups’ conflicts, a Colombian miner was shot dead in December. Others have been killed as well. While it seems clear that there is a strong relationship between illegal mining and organized crime groups in Buenos Aires, it is not the only place in Ecuador where illegal mining has drawn criminal actors. InSight Crime has found that organizations like the FOS could be exerting influence over mining activities in the border provinces of Esmeraldas and Carchi, specifically in the parishes of San Lorenzo and Tobar Donoso. This is a sign that the dimensions of the power organized crime holds over mining in Ecuador could be much greater than previously thought.

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.

Ecuador Warned of Potential Cross-Border Attack by ELN

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Ecuadorean security forces are on high alert after receiving reports Colombia’s ELN guerrillas are planning a cross-border attack, highlighting what has until now been a major blind spot in Ecuador’s border security strategy.

Security forces in Colombia have issued an alert to their Ecuadorean counterparts, seen by InSight Crime, that the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberacíon Nacional – ELN) is planning an attack against military or police in the border region. The report identifies facilities and units in the municipalities of Mira in the province of Carchi and San Lorenzo in Esmeraldas as potential targets. While the warning makes no mention of the motives for the attack, a senior official from the Ecuadorean police, speaking on condition of anonymity, told InSight Crime any attack would likely be politically rather than strategically motivated. According to the official, the ELN may be looking to retaliate against the Ecuadorean government for throwing guerrilla leaders out of the country after refusing to continue hosting peace talks between the ELN and the Colombian government last year. And the guerrillas could also be sending a message over Ecuador’s support for Juan Guaidó, the Venezuelan opposition leader who has declared himself president, as the guerrillas are believed to have ties to the current embattled Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro, the source added.

SEE ALSO: ELN News and Profile

The ELN has no verified armed presence within Ecuador, but according to intelligence reports seen by InSight Crime, the rebels’ Jose Luis Cabrera Company operates just to the west of the major Ipiales-Tulcan border crossing. The company is part of the Comuneros del Sur Front, which is a major player in the underworld war to control criminal economies in the Colombian border department of Nariño. In addition, the police official reported that, while the ELN were in Ecuador for peace talks, they also worked hard to build a support network within the country. According to the official, the rebels established contacts with high-level national government officials, and local political and community leaders in the border region. While authorities believe their main aim was to establish political ties, they are concerned the guerrillas could also have been looking to set up logistical support networks and supply lines.

InSight Crime Analysis

An attack against the Ecuadorean security forces would be a high risk move for the ELN. The last underworld figure to launch spectacular attacks in Ecuador was Walter Patricio Arízala Vernaza, alias “Guacho,” who led a criminalized splinter group of former guerrillas from the now demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarios de Colombia – FARC). Guacho was killed in December 2018 after his attack against police, military and journalists in Ecuador only succeeded in pushing Colombia and Ecuador to dramatically improve bilateral security cooperation as they united to hunt down the former guerrilla fighter.

SEE ALSO: Ecuador Organized Crime News

With the Colombian government desperate to strike hard at the ELN following the car bomb attack on police facilities in Bogota that killed 21 people in mid-January, an ELN attack in Ecuador would likely provoke a similar cross-border assault. However, sources in Ecuador also talk of a different concern – that the ELN will look to build on the foundations they established during peace talks to use Ecuador as a rear guard, logistical hub and supply line. This would also potentially increase their criminal earnings as it would allow them to control movement through what is one of the main cocaine trafficking corridors out of Colombia and a region where illegal gold mining is on the rise. While the ELN’s border strategy remains unclear, the attack alerts stand as a stark warning to Ecuadorean authorities: by focusing their attention almost exclusively on the ex-FARC Mafia, they have created both space and opportunity for the ELN.  

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.

Ecuador ‘Legalizes’ Gangs and Slashes Murder Rate

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In some New York neighborhoods, wearing yellow and black with a golden crown symbol can get you killed. But in Quito, Ecuador, clothing representing the Latin Kings is no cause for concern, nor does it peg you as a criminal.

*This article was originally published by BBC Mundo. It was translated, edited for clarity and reprinted with permission, but does not necessarily reflect the views of InSight Crime. See Spanish version here.

The Latin Kings are one of several gangs that will celebrate their 11th anniversary as a “legalized” organization in Ecuador, an unprecedented process that has helped to reduce homicide rates by more than 70% in the country. Now, as BBC Mundo reports, the golden crown on a black background is synonymous with quality food instead of violence. In Ecuador, the Latin Kings (also known as the Almighty Latin King and Queen Nation or ALKQN) have also transformed themselves into a small catering business called Kings Catering. The transformation was not easy. But international organizations such as the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) have been studying and reporting the results already achieved in just a decade. The IDB reported that the gang legalization process helped to reduce Ecuador’s murders from a rate of 15 per 100,000 people in 2011 to 5 per 100,000 in 2017.

Difficult Transition

Manuel Zúñiga is the president of the Latin Kings in Ecuador, going by the aliases “King Majestic” and “the Inca.” He learned how to handle weapons, steal cars and survive prison, but now he is the legal representative of his gang, or “nation” as they are called within the Latin Kings. Zúñiga also works at a private university, the Catholic University of Quito (Universidad Católica de Quito), and even has his own office. He no longer wears baggy pants, although he still wears his group’s colors with pride as well as the necklaces he earned as a Latin Kings leader. Zúñiga does not hide his tattoos either, saying that each symbolizes either the values of his group or his personal experiences. “Our transition was thanks to the unity and maturity of all of us. It hasn’t been easy, but it was the most positive for our nation,” the gang’s president explained. He added that the kings and queens were “tired of so much abuse and discrimination,” but also that “it was very difficult to convince the brothers because we lived in a world of violence.” The gang member — as he still considers himself to be — said that in the beginning, real divisions emerged. “Now that they’re seeing our positive steps, a lot of brothers are joining in,” Zúñiga told BBC Mundo while traveling from the university to his neighborhood in a car driven by one of these very brothers. When they started, only 20 gang members decided to “legalize.” Their numbers have now swelled to over 1,000 Latin Kings and Queens from various groups.

Legalization

Ana Rodríguez, a researcher at the Latin American Social Sciences Institute (Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales – FLACSO) whom former Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa appointed to be Minister of Culture in 2016, promoted the gang legalization process. “We began to promote legalization to prevent abuses and support [the gang members’] willingness to avoid violent actions,” she explained.
Now the Latin Kings are following technical courses such as screen printing. Boris Miranda/BBC News Mundo
Rodríguez also said that backing from the Correa administration and the Ecuadorian police in creating employment and training opportunities was crucial. “One of the main difficulties was changing the gang members’ image, but we did it,” she said.

Catering

Zúñiga navigates the halls of Quito’s Catholic University with his Latin Kings brothers. No one appears shocked to see young people with heavily tattooed arms, printed t-shirts, and long necklaces preparing and serving them food. This afternoon, they are having pesto rice with stuffed chicken. And Zúñiga believes this is one of their greatest achievements. He and his companions have overcome the stigma through which non-gang members and their country saw them.
Luis Enrique is the first member of the Latin Kings to enroll in college as a sociology major. Boris Miranda/BBC News Mundo
Through the efforts of all involved, the Latin Kings not only run a catering business but receive formal education and training in technical areas such as screen printing and computer science. “They wanted to be trained in practical skills that would help them find employment,” explained Alejandra Delgado, coordinator of the Catholic University’s gang inclusion program. These are goals they share with the institution, given that they all want the projects they are working on to be long-term and produce their own independent businesses.

Problems

While the results of the legalization program are impressive so far, the process has seen setbacks. Violence continues to erupt between groups of young people in Ecuador. And although police chief Patricio Carrillo recognizes the achievements of the social rehabilitation program, he also warns that it has become difficult to maintain. Government authorities have also acknowledged that the nationwide reduction in wages is making it hard to provide the same level of support for gang rehabilitation as before.
The Latin Kings crown is no longer a symbol of crime in Ecuador. Boris Miranda/BBC News Mundo
Another difficulty Carrillo warned about is the emergence of new groups perpetuating violence that do not belong to gangs that have begun their legalization processes. He also added that the work with the gangs is not the only cause for the reduction in violence and murder rate in Ecuador but also the work the police have done with neighborhood residents. “Dividing the territory into zones and subzones that we work with directly has built trust,” he told BBC Mundo.

Lessons Learned?

It is strange that the success of Ecuador’s gang legalization program does not seem to have attracted the attention of other Latin American countries. Experts consulted by BBC Mundo said that this may be due in part to unawareness of the model and in some cases, such as El Salvador, extreme difficulty in shifting public opinion enough for citizens to approve of allocating public resources to gang reinsertion efforts. One such expert is Rafael Gude, an IDB researcher who co-authored Social Inclusion from Below and who has worked with gangs in both Ecuador and Central America. “Ecuador had the advantage of going through a good economic period at the beginning of its legalization process. The same likely cannot be said for countries like El Salvador,” he said. Gude nonetheless added that the model could function very well in other countries with gang issues. “It has to be a structural change, not just in the government but also the police, which is what happened in Ecuador.” *This article was originally published by BBC Mundo. It was translated, edited for clarity and reprinted with permission, but does not necessarily reflect the views of InSight Crime. See Spanish version here.  

Ecuador Soldiers Allegedly Trafficked Weapons to Ex-FARC Mafia

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An investigation into several soldiers in Ecuador who are accused of supplying weapons to an ex-FARC mafia network operating in a key border region suggests that groups of former FARC fighters are growing stronger and building the capacity to corrupt military personnel. On October 17, authorities in Ecuador arrested seven soldiers and seven civilians for their alleged role in trafficking weapons to the Oliver Sinisterra Front (Frente Oliver Sinisterra), an ex-FARC mafia group — networks of dissident fighters from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) — led by Ecuadorean national Walter Patricio Arizala Vernaza, alias “Guacho,” El Comercio reported. The weapons and ammunition allegedly trafficked to Guacho and his group were believed to be registered at a military stockpile in the capital Quito before the inventory was altered by a member of the network. The weapons were then moved to the town of Borbón in the coastal Esmeraldas province near the border with Colombia through parcels, interprovincial busses and private vehicles in order to avoid weapons checkpoints, according to a separate report from El Comercio.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Arms Trafficking

Authorities are searching military facilities in Guayas, Esmeraldas, Loja, Santo Domingo and Pichincha provinces where they say weapons and ammunition slated to be trafficked were hidden among provisions of toilet paper and rice, according to El Comercio. Just last week on October 9, authorities intercepted a taxi in the town of Quinindé in Esmeraldas that was reportedly trafficking weapons and ammunition hidden in sacks of rice. Investigators believe that the arms trafficking network has been operating since at least 2016. Ecuador’s army said in an October 17 press release that the institution “deeply regrets” that some of its members may have been involved in trafficking firearms and ammunition to a criminal group, and that it will cooperate with authorities in their investigation.

InSight Crime Analysis

Colombia’s ex-FARC mafia networks are quickly emerging as a dominant player in the country’s criminal world, and the recent arms trafficking investigation implicating members of Ecuador’s army suggests that authorities may be further from taking down Guacho and his network than they have led on. Guacho’s ex-FARC mafia network has been establishing a strong presence in Ecuador’s border region with Colombia. In January 2018, Guacho was allegedly responsible for a car bomb near the Colombia-Ecuador border in an effort to take control of this strategic area for drug trafficking activities along the Pacific coast. Guacho controls key drug trafficking routes in northern Ecuador and Colombia’s southwest Nariño department, and is “at the service of [Mexico’s] Sinaloa Cartel,” Colombia Attorney General Néstor Humberto Martínez said in March of this year.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Ex-FARC Mafia

However, recent evidence suggested authorities were closing in on Guacho and his network. In June of this year, authorities in Ecuador identified several key players in his network shortly after his brother and his alleged second-in-command were captured. But the brazenness of Guacho’s past violent acts and his links to many multi-ton cocaine shipments leaving Ecuador recently suggests that he may have more freedom to operate there. Corrupting security forces is almost essential for criminal groups such as Guacho’s to survive and continue operating. These connections may explain why he has been able to avoid capture, especially after he was wounded last month during a Colombian military operation.

Restrictions on Venezuela Migrants Boost Criminal Networks

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New immigration restrictions announced by several countries in Latin America to stem the tide of migrants fleeing Venezuela could further open the door for criminal exploitation of the migrant population. The governments of Peru, Ecuador and Brazil announced they would require passports of the Venezuelans fleeing. The new measure follows a renewed surge in Venezuelans seeking refuge, which has tripled in recent months. According to the United Nations, 2.3 million Venezuelans have fled the country. Their main destinations are Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Brazil, the UN says. Although the flow of migrants was partially reversed following the measures, reports immediately surfaced of migrants falling into the hands of “coyote mafias,” which operate as human trafficking networks, as they moved through less traveled routes. Peru, the country with the second highest influx of Venezuelan migrants, put its new measures into place following a rash of xenophobic attacks on Venezuelans and a major arrest of alleged members of a Venezuelan mega-gang known as the Train of Aragua (El Tren de Aragua). Another dispute erupted in Brazil’s northernmost Roraima state after two Venezuelan migrants allegedly assaulted and robbed a Brazilian businessman. The Brazilian died, sparking clashes and resulting in the expulsion of several Venezuelans. Brazil President Michel Temer has gone even further, announcing the militarization of the country’s border with Venezuela and labeling citizens of the neighboring country “a threat to South America.”

SEE ALSO: Venezuela News and Profiles

There is now an undeniable regional dimension to the issue. Amnesty International and the United Nations have issued statements on the matter, and representatives from 11 nations in the region recently attended a summit in Quito, Ecuador, to talk through the situation. The emergency summit led to the Declaration of Quito on September 4, in which the signatories agreed to make some entry requirements more flexible for Venezuelans and to join forces in combating “human trafficking and the smuggling of migrants.”

InSight Crime Analysis

The size of this massive exodus and the often desperate state of the migrants makes them easy prey for organized crime networks. “Desperation opens a path to all kinds of criminal networks involved in human trafficking and smuggling, exploitation, forced prostitution, slavery, and criminal recruitment,” explained Beatriz Borges, the head of the Center for Justice and Peace (Centro de Justicia y Paz – CEPAZ), a human rights organization in Venezuela that specializes in migration, human trafficking and smuggling issues. “They’re having a field day with Venezuelans. The development [of criminal activities] is in full swing, and there is no way to measure it because we’re talking about invisible networks, and the victims don’t report [the crimes].” Borges told InSight Crime that “right now, Venezuelan migration should be categorized as forced migration because it is unplanned and for survival. This migrant profile is three times more vulnerable to criminal networks, and the different countries — both transit and receiving countries — have a responsibility to protect migrants and prevent these risks.” The risks are myriad. While conducting fieldwork, for example, InSight Crime’s Colombia Investigative Team discovered that criminal groups such as the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) and dissidents of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) guerrillas were recruiting Venezuelans. Moreover, four Venezuelans who had joined FARC dissident groups died during a June bombing operation by Colombian authorities. The CEPAZ director added that restrictive measures “leave Venezuelan migrants exposed, and they open up spaces for human smuggling and trafficking because the people are under abnormal conditions and are willing to accept anything offered to them.” Lilian Aya Ramírez, a Venezuelan sociologist and lawyer living in Colombia, has studied the situation faced by migrants from her home country and agreed with Borges, adding that “trafficking occurs where drug and weapons trafficking also occur.” She mentioned that a higher number of Venezuelans are being detected in the drug trade.

SEE ALSO: Trump’s Border Policies Strengthen Organized Crime. Here’s How.

“With tighter controls, people are going to look for a way to get through and [government] officials are going to be paid off to violate [regulations] to get the migrants through. That’s what leads to an underground market. Illegal migration isn’t the same as human trafficking, but it’s a way to blackmail, control and manipulate migrants,” Ramírez told InSight Crime. She stressed that “the majority of migrants are very young, and this puts them in a more vulnerable situation. I’ve seen cases in Bogotá of young people who have been lured with false job offers when they’re still in Venezuela, and when they get to Colombia [the jobs] turn out to be trafficking and modern slavery networks.” The Declaration of Quito may be an important first step in dealing with the issue. But while it mentioned some of the risks, it failed to state what concrete actions the governments will take to protect migrants who are vulnerable to criminal groups.