Hezbollah’s Backing of Maduro May Shine Light on Links With Venezuela

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Hezbollah’s explicit support for Venezuela President Nicolás Maduro could be the first step in confirming links between the South American nation’s government, the terrorist organization and organized crime groups. Hezbollah’s backing comes amid one of the country’s worst political crises in history.  “Everyone knows that the US objective is not to defend democracy and freedom, according to Washington, but to appropriate the resources of the country and punish all states that oppose US hegemony,” Hezbollah said in a January 24 press release transmitted by the satellite television station Al Manar from Lebanon’s capital Beirut. In addition to the press release, Hezbollah’s support for Maduro was also evident through a January 25 visit that the leader of the terrorist group’s “Loyalty to the Resistance” parliamentary block, Mohammad Raad, had with Venezuela Ambassador to Libya Jesús González González.

SEE ALSO: Venezuela Criminal Structures Bolster Maduro in Second Term

“We came to express our solidarity with the Venezuelan people and their free will, and to condemn US interference in their affairs,” Raad said. Hezbollah’s support for Maduro comes amid an international debate about the embattled leader’s alleged usurpation of the presidency and the acknowledgement of National Assembly President Juan Guaidó as interim president with the goal of creating a transitional government and having free and fair elections. The United States recently designated Hezbollah as a top transnational organized crime threat. On the other hand, authorities in the United States and Israel recently exposed an alleged connection between Hezbollah and the Maduro administration. The link involves supposed negotiations of illegal food imports from the government’s Local Storage and Production Committees (Comités Locales de Abastecimiento y Producción – CLAP). Colombian businessman Alex Saab, Maduro’s partner in this business, is a key player in this relationship.

InSight Crime Analysis

Hezbollah has manifested its relationship with the Maduro regime at a time when the entire international community has its eyes fixed on Venezuela amid the deterioration of the country’s democracy, the complex humanitarian crisis unfolding there, and the fear that the South American nation is becoming an axis of organized crime in the region. But it is worth noting that claims about the presence of terrorist groups such as Hezbollah in Latin America have long made the rounds, without any “smoking gun” ever having been found. Simon Fraser University Research Associate Benoît Gomis told InSight Crime in 2017 that the “threats posed by these groups has often been inflated, typically for political reasons, and how this has at times distracted from more pressing security concerns.” This is not simply a matter of diplomatic support, as has been shown by other countries with a dubious democratic reputation — such as Turkey, Cuba or Russia — and allies of those who have ruled Venezuela for the past 20 years. Hezbollah has allegedly found a source of financing for its terrorist activities in the populist governments of Latin America, with Venezuela at the head. From there the organization has made links with criminal groups such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) guerrillas, as well as the Sinaloa Cartel and Zetas in Mexico. However, reports that Hezbollah is mining gold in Venezuela to finance its own operations have so far remained unconfirmed. Certainly, the Maduro regime has made a lucrative side-business out of exporting Venezuelan gold to countries and groups that are ideologically opposed to the US.  Unofficial reports based on intelligence information have alleged the involvement of Venezuela’s former interior minister, who controlled the country’s migration office, former vice president Tareck El Aissami, and other top Venezuelan government officials. These allegations pointed to Hezbollah’s deepening presence in Venezuela, which has never been shown before, and its activities with governmental agencies in the country, as was made clear by a CNN en Español investigation on the questionable delivery of Venezuelan passports to members of extremist organizations in the Middle East.

SEE ALSO: Islamic Terror Groups, LatAm Crime in ‘Marriage of Convenience’: Report

But what is Hezbollah doing in Venezuela? ABC in Spain journalist Emili Blasco has provided some possible clues based on investigations conducted by US authorities. These investigations suggest that the terrorist group has found a safe haven in Venezuela for other criminal activities, such as drug trafficking and money laundering, specifically from Margarita Island just north of the mainland in the Caribbean Sea. Hezbollah may also have had some alleged involvement in training armed groups that supported the late President Hugo Chávez and now Maduro. Venezuela’s so-called “colectivos” — armed parapolice organizations linked to the Chávez governments —  could have received training from Hezbollah, police sources told InSight Crime. The colectivos have also recently closed ranks with Maduro in his effort to stay in power and prevent a change in the country’s political leadership.

Venezuela Soldiers Mutiny, Lambast Corrupt Military Leadership

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An uprising of soldiers against the government of Nicolás Maduro has raised questions about corruption inside the armed forces and links between the military’s top commanders and organized crime. The mutiny of national guardsmen was revealed through videos spread on social media on January 21. Involved in the uprising were more than 20 soldiers attached to the command of Zone 43 of the Venezuelan National Guard (Guardia Nacional Bolivariana – GNB). In the videos, the rebels can be heard criticizing corruption inside the Venezuelan National Armed Forces (Fuerza Armada Nacional Bolivariana – FANB). “Here no one can get medicine…one speaks with the commanders so that they can help us, but they turn their backs on us…simply, the officials get their fill. And that’s it. There is only for them and nothing more. And us? The troops? We are going to send a message to all of Venezuela: that we are suffering the same as the people of Venezuela.” Within hours of the uprising, the Defense Ministry sent an official notice that there had been mutinies at three barracks in Caracas, from which guns and ammunition were taken. Authorities said they had arrested 27 soldiers and recovered the weapons.

SEE ALSO: Venezuela News and Profiles

The uprising of guardsmen triggered a wave of protests in Venezuelan states that have seen citizens repressed by authorities and by criminal armed groups called “colectivos.” The uprising comes amid the debate about Maduro’s alleged takeover of the presidency and the call for a nationwide protest against his regime on January 23.

InSight Crime Analysis

There have been repeated accusations that the Venezuelan military is involved in organized crime, in relation to illegal mining, the theft of gasoline, and the trafficking of drugs under the banner of the “Cartel of the Suns” (Cartel de los Soles). The military’s links to criminal economies appear to be one of the driving forces that pushed the soldiers to take up arms and reject the Maduro government, which has sent Venezuela into a devastating social and economic crisis. In one of the videos, a soldier alleges that the illegal economies taking place inside the ranks of the FANB have only benefited the military’s commanders, which have shown unconditional support for Maduro. Rejection of his leadership from certain elements of the military comes at a bad time for Maduro, who is facing arguably the toughest challenge to his rule. The charismatic Juan Guaidó, president of the National Assembly, has declared himself to be “interim president” of Venezuela. The international community was quick to rally round him, with US President Donald Trump formally recognizing his decision, along with Canada, Brazil, and most of Latin America. Thousands of Venezuelans have also taken to the streets, demanding for Maduro to resign. So far, the violence has killed at least 17 people and Maduro defiantly cut off ties with the US, ordering its diplomats to leave within 72 hours. Since last March, 16 high-ranking military officers have been sanctioned by the US and other countries. Among those sanctioned were the Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López and Interior Minister Néstor Reverol, who has been accused by US prosecutors of being involved in drug trafficking. Perhaps one of the biggest stumbling blocks to a change of government in Venezuela and a return to democracy will be the military’s high-ranking officers, who seem likely to continue supporting the Maduro regime and preserve their links with drug trafficking and organized crime.

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.

Pirates Control Ocean Between Venezuela, Trinidad and Tobago

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Increased pirate attacks in the waters between Trinidad and Tobago and Venezuela show that criminal gangs in the Venezuelan state of Sucre are trying to dominate the drug trafficking route from the country’s coast to the Caribbean. Trinidadian fishermen have suffered constant attacks by Venezuelan criminal groups, according to a recent report by The Telegraph. The attacks were attributed to rising criminality in Venezuela due to the ongoing economic and social crisis. But smuggling has been a way of life for many inhabitants of both countries, separated by just 16 kilometers of ocean. In recent years, the attacks on fishermen have increased due to the scarcity of essential products in Venezuela. Fishermen have been targeted for robberies, often being stripped of their belongings. Their boat engines have also been stolen in violent attacks.

SEE ALSO: Venezuela Pirates Harassing Fishermen

Experts consulted by InSight Crime agreed that these pirates are working for two drug trafficking gangs, based in the localities of San Juan de Unare y San Juan de las Galdonas, in the municipality of Arismendi. Sucre has been a base for drug trafficking for over 10 years. It is currently the fifth most violent state in Venezuela, according to the 2018 report by the Venezuelan Violence Observatory (Observatorio Venezolano de Violencia – OVV), with a homicide rate of 97 per 100,000 inhabitants. “This is related with the expansion of organized crime into these areas to control drug trafficking to the islands and the Caribbean Sea,” said the report.

InSight Crime Analysis

The objective of these modern-day pirates is to control the smuggling routes from eastern Venezuela. The way they have found to do so is to target fishermen from Venezuela and Trinidad, preventing them from sailing in the waters between the two countries. This is precisely the route used to move shipments of cocaine and marijuana coming from Colombia, crossing Venezuela and continuing on to the Caribbean islands, OVV sources in the state of Sucre told InSight Crime. “They steal the engines so fishermen cannot continue sailing in the area where they could witness drug trafficking operations, which now take place in complete impunity,” said an OVV representative. “Two days ago, they stole two engines, they took away the catch from our colleagues and beat them,” one fisherman from Río Caribe told InSight Crime on condition of anonymity. He added that, during 2018, the pirates had stolen 31 engines from the town. “We still have 76 engines but we don’t dare go out to sea. The entire coast of the Paria peninsula is a no-go area, it is dominated by the Unare and San Juan gangs,” he explained.

SEE ALSO: Venezuela News and Profiles

The fisherman emphasized the powerlessness in which his community find themselves: “We went to the judicial police (CICPC) but they did nothing. There is no one to complain to because the same security forces are accomplices of the drug traffickers. And many people from the communities also take part in this crime. The pirates work for the gangs,” he said. A journalist from Sucre, whose identity is also being protected, told InSight Crime that the San Juan de Unare and San Juan de las Galdonas gangs amass enough drug money to buy the collaboration of security forces, especially the Coastal Surveillance Command. “They do not want to fight the drug traffickers of Paria, because the Coast Guard of Güiria only have one boat, which is not enough to patrol the entire area,” he added. On the other hand, these criminal organizations have also recruited fishermen as pirates and lash out at those who have not yet been tempted to join their ranks. “The pirates have speedboats with powerful engines, allowing them to move drugs, weapons and any other illegal merchandise from Sucre to Trinidad in just a few minutes and, if necessary, subdue any who cross their path by force,” said the journalist. News about massacres and forced disappearances of people, as a result of the struggle between the San Juan de Unare and San Juan de las Galdonas gangs, has also generated fears in Río Caribe. Local sources consulted by InSight Crime agree that the two groups are engaged in a bloody rivalry for control over the local territory and criminal markets. In 2015, InSight Crime warned of the rise of piracy between the coasts of Trinidad and Venezuela. The organization Oceans Beyond Piracy recorded a 163 percent increase in piracy-related crimes in 2017. At the beginning of 2018, a Bloomberg report also showed how the absence of the Venezuelan state had fostered organized crime in Sucre. But the situation has consistently degenerated into a generalized state of terror among the local population.

Arrest of Venezuela’s New Political Star Potential Misstep by Police

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Venezuelan intelligence agents detained and then freed the new president of the National Assembly in what closely resembled a kidnapping, showcasing possible conflicts within a force known for its human rights violations and participation in criminal activities. Agents of Venezuela’s Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (Servicio Bolivariano de Inteligencia Nacional – SEBIN) on January 13 intercepted a vehicle carrying Juan Guaidó on a highway connecting the capital Caracas with northern Vargas state, the BBC reported. In a confusing series of events captured on video, the National Assembly president from the opposition Voluntad Popular party can be seen being taken from his car, handcuffed and forced into a police vehicle.

SEE ALSO: Report Highlights Abuses by Venezuela Intelligence Police

The incident drew immediate condemnation at home and abroad. The administration of President Nicolás Maduro issued a press release saying that Guaidó’s detention had been unilaterally carried out by members of the intelligence police. Communications Minister Jorge Rodríguez assured that those responsible would be held accountable, adding that the incident had become a “false positive [by the opposition] … to pay for an aggressive campaign against the legitimate, constitutional and democratic government of Venezuela.” The recent events came after Maduro was accused of having usurped the presidency as international organizations and different countries questioned the legitimacy of his election. Now at the head of the National Assembly — the only Venezuelan political institution recognized abroad — Guaidó became a prime target for the intelligence police and their masters.  Following this incident, Guaidó was recognized as “president in charge” of Venezuela by former presidents of Ibero-American countries while McClatchy reports that US President Donald Trump may be considering doing the same. 

InSight Crime Analysis

Venezuela’s intelligence police have acted as the enforcement arm for the political persecution of those opposed to the Maduro regime. Arrests have been carried out using commando-style operations declared by national and international organizations as arbitrary detentions — as was the case with Guaidó — and are often accompanied by torture and other extreme abuses. The headquarters of Venezuela’s political police are detention centers for political prisoners. There has been extensive documentation of the unit’s alleged use of torture. In a still unclear incident from October 2018, opposition councilman Fernando Albán died while in the custody of the intelligence police. The official version of events suggested he committed suicide. However, others have spoken of a possible murder, which is certainly plausible given the many accusations against the intelligence police for their alleged mistreatment of detainees. Indeed, there are countless allegations of extortion and kidnappings carried out by its officers. Some have alleged that agents even use official facilities to carry out their criminal operations.

SEE ALSO: Venezuela: A Mafia State?

On the other hand, some believe that the detention and immediate release of Guaidó could be the result of internal fighting between opposing factions, a reflection of current tensions in Venezuela. Voluntad Popular leader Leopoldo López said in an audio recording that what happened to Guaidó reveals the “internal breakdown and fragility in the chain of command” within the intelligence police, as well as other police and military institutions. Guaidó himself also came to this conclusion. “There is no chain of command in the security forces,” he said. But beyond who was behind Guaidó’s detention, the incident appears to have been an intimidation attempt using a police force characterized by its criminal actions. The young member of parliament has become a stone in the shoe for Maduro’s increasingly corrupt regime.

Shadow Tourism Industry Smuggles Migrants from Venezuela to Colombia

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Tourism agencies and taxi cooperatives are the newest fronts being used to hide migrant-smuggling rings at the border between Venezuela and Colombia, a shadowy business that earns illegal organizations and corrupt authorities up to $500 per person smuggled. In La Parada, a neighborhood located between the town of Villa del Rosario in the Colombian department of Norte de Santander and the Simón Bolívar International Bridge that links Venezuela and Colombia, rows of taxis and small, so-called tourist agencies sit along the unpaved streets full of migrants crossing the border in the hope of improving their living conditions outside of their country. This is where criminal groups have installed false tourist offices and where “jaladores” — those who scope out potential victims — attract the attention of undocumented Venezuelan migrants. They offer the desperate “tourist packages” that include stays in transit shelters. Some depart from Venezuela to the border with Colombia, others from the border to the interior of Colombia, often to cities such as Cali, Medellín and the capital city of Bogotá. Still others go as far as the city of Ipiales in the department of Nariño on Colombia’s southwestern border, where Venezuelan migrants are then transported to Ecuador and Peru.

SEE ALSO: GameChangers 2018: Venezuelan Migration a New Gold Mine for Organized Crime

The tourism plans can be offered by agencies but also by human smuggling networks in Venezuela. When they arrive at the Colombian border, the migrants must cross the international bridge on foot or use one of the many illegal trails that have been carved out between the two countries. One source in the field whom InSight Crime consulted said that undocumented people attempting to cross the bridge must pay bribes of up to $30 — a large sum considering the current value of the Venezuelan bolivar — to Colombian or Venezuelan officials with ties to criminal organizations. Using the illegal trails or crossing the river simply means they pay the same organizations directly. In order to travel along the routes within Colombia and beyond, the agencies and bus companies charge fees with surcharges of up to 40 percent, money which is presumed to go towards bribes to authorities patrolling the roads. One person could pay anywhere from $12 to $500, usually depending on the distance of their journey. Pepe Ruiz Paredes, mayor of Villa del Rosario, told InSight Crime that between 30 and 40 buses pass by in a single day, each one holding approximately 20 to 30 people who are believed to have purchased false tourist plans. According to a document provided by Ruiz Paredes, during a March 2018 meeting, local and departmental authorities from Norte de Santander stated that among the transportation companies involved are Trasan, Coopetran, Omega Cotrans and the Catatumbo taxi cooperative. Approximately six travel agencies were also identified at the meeting, including Rutas de América, Turismo Jet Limitada and Agencia Travesias. Authorities still do not know who is running the operation. While the Urabeños have the most control over the region, multiple criminal organizations are present in the region, which has led to disputes at the border for control of this and other illegal activities.

InSight Crime Analysis

The Venezuelan migration crisis has given rise to new illicit activities. Those well established in other criminal economies have adapted to fit the unique situation at the border. Of them, human smuggling and the various forms of modern slavery (human trafficking, sexual exploitation, and child exploitation, among others) all threaten vulnerable Venezuelan migrants. Tourist transport is fast becoming a favorite front for migrant smuggling as well as drug trafficking to different regions in Colombia and neighboring countries. Despite the fact that authorities have repeatedly discovered illegal activities in the use of tourism buses, they continue to be one of the most popular means of transporting narcotics. And now, attracted by the business’ low risk, an increasing number of criminal groups are using them for human smuggling and trafficking as well. Colombian authorities have also cracked down on the country’s border with Ecuador, where a serious collision occurred in August 2018 involving a bus full of tourists that was smuggling drugs.

SEE ALSO: 5 Strategies to Combat Human Trafficking in the Americas

Two years ago, InSight Crime reported on a similar case at the border between Paraguay, Brazil, and Argentina, where a sightseeing bus bound for Rio de Janeiro was stopped with 296 kilograms of Colombian cocaine. While the use of tour buses and fake travel agencies is a common element between the two events, there are differences. Buses used for drug trafficking frequent less traveled roads to avoid the authorities. However, those used for human smuggling leave the border or even from the bus terminal in the city of Cúcuta in Norte de Santander to head out on major national roads. High rates of corruption in border authorities or a simple inability to stop the criminal networks from operating are common threads that have buoyed a business which has victimized countless Venezuelan migrants.

Venezuela Criminal Structures Bolster Maduro in Second Term

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The swearing in of Nicolás Maduro for a second presidential term demonstrates just how deeply entrenched organized crime structures are in Venezuela’s government, having helped to sustain a regime marked by unlawful actions, human rights violations and support of criminal groups. In the weeks leading up to Maduro’s inauguration on January 10, a string of events further called the legitimacy of Maduro’s presidency into question — a characterization that goes back to his controversial declaration of victory in the May 2018 election, which provided him a second term. On January 6, Cristian Zerpa, a Venezuelan Supreme Court judge, made a shocking escape to the United States and has accused the Maduro government of illegal acts, such as violating the separation of powers. Speaking from Orlando in several interviews with media outlets, Zerpa said that a small group of people in the executive branch dictates court rulings in Venezuela in order to keep Chavismo in power and cover up illegal acts. The people Zerpa named include the president, first lady Cilia Flores, Vice President Tareck El Aissami, Vice President Delcy Rodríguez, Communication Minister Jorge Rodríguez and president of the National Constituent Assembly (Asamblea Nacional Constituyente – ANC), Diosdado Cabello.

SEE ALSO: Venezuela News and Profiles

Zerpa, once an important Chavista collaborator with close ties to Maduro and the first lady, also revealed the regime’s connections with drug trafficking, though he did not give many details. “Venezuela is an important country on drug trafficking routes, and that wouldn’t be possible without the complicity of certain authorities,” said the former judge, adding his own drug trafficking accusations to the many that have already been lobbed at Maduro government officials grouped under the moniker Cartel de los Soles (Cartel of the Suns). As Zerpa opened up about the Maduro administration’s hijacking of Venezuela’s government institutions, the US Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) updated its Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons (SDN) List, adding seven people, most of them business leaders known to be in the intimate circles of Maduro and his predecessor, Hugo Chávez. At the top of the list is Raúl Antonio Gorrín Belisario, president of television news network Globovisión. He was added to the SDN list for his alleged ties to a corruption network suspected of bribing Venezuelan government institutions in order to conduct illegal currency exchanges that yielded some $2.4 billion. In a news release, OFAC also alleged that Gorrín and former national treasurer Claudia Patricia Díaz Guillén participated in a mafia-like structure linking business leaders and high-level government officials. Gorrín also made headlines in July 2018 for his suspected participation in Operation Money Flight, a case in which upwards of $1.2 billion was laundered from Venezuela’s state-owned oil company Petróleos de Venezuela S.A. (PdVSA). In that case, Gorrín is alleged to have been behind a series of financial transactions that placed approximately $200 million into accounts belonging to the first lady Cilia Flores’ children.

SEE ALSO: US Charges Point to Rampant Corruption at Venezuela State Oil Company

The US sanctions also reached Globovisión itself, long a symbol of Venezuela and once a defender of the country’s opposition during the Chávez presidency. However, Gorrín and his partner Gustavo Perdomo (also sanctioned) were able to acquire it as compensation for important currency transactions they conducted with the Chavista government. While the acquisition may have been the least profitable that Gorrín and Perdomo carried out under Chávez, it ensured the government’s domination of Venezuela’s communication sector. The media giant may have also been used to cover up criminal operations. Another element feeding into the political situation in Venezuela is the connection between the government and various criminal structures that have emerged from the shadows of Chavismo. Pro-government armed groups called “colectivos” have been deployed in an apparent effort to demonstrate what the government is capable of doing to keep Maduro in power. Since January 7, several groups have paraded down the streets of Caracas, showing off military equipment in front of the presidential palace.

InSight Crime Analysis

The co-opting of government institutions, direct links between the Maduro government and Venezuelan economic elites replete with ill-gotten profits, and the government’s open encouragement of armed groups to intimidate the population are three signs that Venezuela’s crisis is deepening. The situation has reached the point of a humanitarian emergency, and the government has degenerated into a mafia state. Although Maduro is set to start another 10 years as president, Venezuela’s opposition and at least 50 national governments rejected the official results of the elections held on May 20, 2018. The main reason given was that there were not enough guarantees for the election to be considered truly free and fair, and therefore Maduro is an illegitimate president. Venezuela’s economic crisis has led to an inflation rate that the International Monetary Fund says will reach 10 million percent in 2019, and crime and violence have hit levels usually seen in times of war. In 2018, there were 23,047 homicides, according to the Venezuelan Violence Observatory (Observatorio Venezolano de Violencia – OVV). Security forces committed 7,523 killings; all those killed were categorized as “resisting authority.” With a rate of 81 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, Venezuela is the most violent country in Latin America. The company Delphos conducted an opinion survey in November 2018 that evaluated Maduro’s popularity. It found that 61.1 percent of those surveyed felt the situation in Venezuela had worsened after the government adopted new economic measures in August 2018. Fifty-eight percent identified the government as primarily responsible for the country’s problems. To address the public discontent, the Maduro government has resorted to state violence, whether by killing alleged criminals or using armed pro-government groups to terrorize the residents of Venezuela’s towns and cities. Further complicating the situation is the increasing presence of criminal groups from Colombia in Venezuelan territory, including the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) guerrilla group. The ELN has now spread to at least 12 states, but for now have mainly stuck to the mining regions. Massive forced migration is one of the most striking signs that Venezuelans have rejected Maduro’s policies, his government’s corruption, and the organized crime structures that have held up the regime. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) reported in November 2018 that there are now 3 million Venezuelan migrants worldwide.

SEE ALSO: GameChangers 2018: Venezuelan Migration a New Gold Mine for Organized Crime

Given that colectivos and other repression and social control mechanisms were on full display during Maduro’s inauguration, it seems clear that no policy changes are on the horizon for his second term. Legitimate or not, the new Venezuelan government will continue to rely on armed groups to act in mercenary fashion in so-called defense of the revolution. The government will also depend on criminal structures involved in drug trafficking and other criminal economies, enriching those with the right connections.

GameChangers 2018: Venezuelan Migration a New Gold Mine for Organized Crime

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Turbulence reigned in 2018, but there was one constant: the flow of Venezuelans fleeing their country. The unceasing migration has left thousands of people homeless, penniless and ripe for exploitation by organized crime groups.

Mariana, a manicurist from the city of Maracaibo, is one example. It took her half a day to cross the border from Venezuela to Colombia. She did not need a passport or any other identification document, nor did she deal with a single immigration official. There weren’t even any rivers to cross. All she had to do was pay a little over 20,000 bolivars and 10,000 Colombian pesos (about $34 in May 2018) — all her savings at the time to reserve one of five seats in a car used by a friend to transport Venezuelans across the border from the state of Zulia via the Colombian town of Paraguachón.

The price, a relatively common amount, feeds into a basic migrant smuggling structure operating in the department of La Guajira in Colombia. People from the indigenous Wayúu population run the operation, which illegally brings Venezuelan migrants into Colombia by the thousands. At least 40 of Mariana’s relatives now live in the Colombian city of Medellín, and they used the same network to leave Venezuela.

The boom in the forced migration of Venezuelans has lasted for more than two years. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimate that approximately three million people have left the country during that time. Most migrants go to Colombia and Brazil, Venezuela’s closest neighbors. Others go to Peru, Chile, Ecuador, Argentina, Panama, Mexico and the islands of Curaçao, Aruba, and Trinidad and Tobago.

Venezuelan migrant victims of organized crime InSight Crime Map

Among this massive and uncontrolled exodus, innumerable criminal economies and illicit businesses have emerged. The situation has turned the migrants into a commodity. And a rapidly spreading criminal industry is feeding on them with significant potential to replicate the perilous coyote experience between Central America, Mexico, and the United States.

Venezuela has no data estimating the number of migrants who have been smuggled or trafficked. It is also not known how many migrants have been recruited by criminal organizations operating in Colombia as they flee one of the worst crises in Latin America in recent decades.

In a recent study on migrant smuggling, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimated that at least 2.5 million migrants were victims of smuggling rings worldwide in 2016. Criminal organizations made approximately $7 billion from migrant smuggling.

For Venezuelans, the migration business straddles the border. And the first criminal structure citizens must get through is their own government. Corrupt officials operate with intermediaries to exchange bribes and extort money from people who need passports, police background checks, or certifications for their college degrees. They charge exorbitant rates for their services, often offered through the messaging service WhatsApp.

Most migrants then leave by land where things get treacherous, especially the corridor known as the Guajira peninsula. The peninsula is shared by both Colombia (La Guajira department) and Venezuela (Zulia state). On the Colombian side, human smuggling is dominated by “Los Guajiros,” as the Wayúu people in the area are often called. They impose their own tariffs to allow the movement of vehicles transporting migrants into Colombia through their territory. They also maintain a fleet of vehicles and up to 10 checkpoints on each of the more than 200 “trochas” or improvised roads that connect the two countries. To be able to cross, drivers must make payments at each control point, with the price varying constantly. Migrants or independent transporters who try to best this system not only expose themselves to robbery, abuse and sexual abuse, but also put their lives at risk.

Reports of migrant smuggling operations are growing along Venezuela’s border with Brazil as well, where the networks are run by both Brazilians and Venezuelans.

Other costs and dangers await migrants who go by sea. On the Venezuelan coast closest to Curaçao, Aruba, and Trinidad and Tobago, different modes of human smuggling have been discovered, such as using small fishing boats to transport Venezuelans to the islands, a trip such boats are unfit to make. The cost for the dangerous crossing is $350, slightly more than a plane ticket for the same trajectory. Up to 20 people board the boats at a time. So far, there are few details on how the groups running the trips are organized or how they operate, but the frequent shipwrecks and arrests of the so-called “balseros venezolanos,” or Venezuelan rafters, indicate that it could be a growing industry.

The Hungry and the Enslaved

Poverty, hunger and limited access to health services and medicine have been the engine driving the mass migration of Venezuelans, and it is only accelerating. In 2017, 87 percent of the Venezuelan population was living in poverty, according to the National Survey of Living Conditions of the Venezuelan Population (Encuesta Nacional de Condiciones de Vida de la Población Venezolana – ENCOVI), making it easier for criminal organizations to exploit them.

Most notably, Venezuelans often become victims of modern slavery and its various incarnations, such as sexual and labor exploitation. In 2018, Venezuelan non-governmental organization Paz Activa reported that there had been 198,800 victims of human trafficking as of 2017 in its publication Human Trafficking, Forced Labor and Slavery (Trata de Personas, Trabajo Forzoso y Esclavitud). Paz Activa has further warned that the figure could reach 600,000 in 2019.

The United States singled out Venezuela as a country that is not making any effort to combat human trafficking and to protect victims. Meanwhile, Colombian authorities say that human trafficking has increased along with Venezuelan migration.

This year, dozens of human trafficking, sexual exploitation and forced labor networks that specifically target Venezuelan migrants have been dismantled from Colombia, Peru, Panama, and Mexico, to the Dominican Republic and numerous countries in Europe.

In Colombia’s capital city of Bogota, 75 percent of reported trafficking victims are from Venezuela. And in smaller cities like Cartagena, Barranquilla and Armenia — the capital of Quindío department in the heart of the country’s famed coffee region — authorities have dismantled smaller networks of sexual slavery and forced labor.

They also estimate that in Cúcuta, capital of the department of Norte de Santander and a major migration gateway, there are more than 2,000 Venezuelan prostitutes, so many that prices have been driven down to as little as 10,000 Colombian pesos (approximately $3.50) for their services.

Criminal groups operating in Colombia are also taking advantage of the humanitarian crisis. Authorities in Norte de Santander told InSight Crime that all of the country’s armed groups are currently recruiting Venezuelans: The National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN), the dissidents from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC), the Rastrojos and the Urabeños all use them for different functions.The non-governmental organization the Foundation Networks (Fundación Redes) said in its latest report that Venezuelans make up some 60 percent of these groups.

Moreover, InSight Crime learned that Venezuelans have been replacing Colombian raspachines — people who harvest coca leaves — because they charge less.

“Most of the people caught up in these criminal groups are young and desperate to earn money to help their families in Venezuela,” said David Smolansky, the former mayor of the Venezuelan town of El Hatillo who is currently living in exile. Smolansky coordinates a working group on Venezuelan migrants, which the Organization of American States (OAS) created this year.

Monthly salaries when working for these criminal groups range from $100 to $300, an income that would be almost impossible to earn in Venezuela at the moment. But Venezuelans face dangers when working with such groups. In June, a bombing operation conducted by the Colombian army against a dissident FARC camp in Arauca department killed four Venezuelans, including two women.

Informal and Criminal Economies

Cúcuta is the principal corridor along the expansive border Colombia and Venezuela share. Some 40,000 Venezuelans pass through the city each day. Waves of people lug suitcases and balance packages on their shoulders as they flow into a prolific informal economy. Here, everything from cellular phones to “canaimitas” (laptops the Venezuelan government distributes to its schools) to even hair can be bought or sold.

The market for hair is particularly vibrant. As soon as they set foot on Colombian soil, Venezuelans can sell their locks for up to 100,000 Colombian pesos, which is approximately $30. In Venezuela, this amount equates to five months’ worth of minimum-wage income. The hair is used to make natural extensions that are then sold online for up to $200.

This passageway is just the first step in what is fast becoming a major corridor of migration-based organized crime. InSight Crime sources stated that a prostitution structure operates at that very point in the border, luring young women and children from the moment they arrive at the Colombian side of the Simón Bolívar bridge. They are temporarily housed in tractor-trailers, then transported to different departments throughout Colombia. Some even make it to Panama.

While it could not be confirmed through fieldwork, various regions of Colombia are notorious for having a large presence of sex workers who come from Venezuela. Cases of the sexual exploitation of Venezuelan children have also been reported in tourism enclaves like Cartagena and Santa Marta.

Borders Closed, Criminal Floodgates Open

The situation that has grown up around the Venezuelan migration has begun to significantly impact the greater region. In 2018, Latin American governments held at least two summits specifically to find a solution to the problem. The crisis is also one more on a growing list of issues tied to the already complicated migration situation affecting Central America, Mexico, and the United States.

Despite the meetings and other efforts, leaders from across the continent seem to have no effective means of tackling this crisis. Instead, the immediate reaction from many of them has been to close their countries’ borders in an attempt to squelch the growing migratory flows.

US President Donald Trump is one of the strongest advocates for that option, having proposed numerous strategies to essentially shut down the border between the United States and Mexico. Others in the region seem keen to follow his example or use it as cover for their own callous policies.

Yet, when borders are closed, migrants do not stop in their tracks; they tend to shift to more dangerous routes. And these routes are usually controlled by organized crime, thanks, in part, to chains of corruption and collusion with local authorities and security forces.

For example, Central American migrants traveling through Mexico have found themselves in the hands of organized crime groups, which are charging more for their services as Trump ramps up efforts to beef up the border. Smuggling Venezuelans is not yet as lucrative since the Venezuelan passport still allows for legal, visa-free entry to most countries in the region.  

Despite hard-line responses, migration levels are not decreasing. And little has been done to tackle the reasons driving people away from their homes in Central America, Venezuela and elsewhere, such as high homicide rates, corruption, and inefficient governments.

Venezuela’s descent into crisis has largely spurred the mass migration. According to estimates from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), inflation could top one million percent by the end of 2018, and the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) could plummet by 18 percent.

The UN reports the number of Venezuelan migrants could skyrocket to 5.3 million in 2019. This increase will only fuel the market for criminal groups seeking to benefit from them, while also putting further strain on governments already incapable or unwilling to end the corruption and collusion that allow the same groups to function.

All this makes it unlikely that the situation will improve in the foreseeable future, except, of course, for organized crime.

GameChangers 2018: The Year Crime Became an Ideology

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Welcome to InSight Crime’s Criminal GameChangers 2018, where we highlight the most important trends in organized crime in the Americas over the course of the year. From a rise in illicit drug availability and resurgence of monolithic criminal groups to the weakening of anti-corruption efforts and a swell in militarized responses to crime, 2018 was a year in which political issues were still often framed as left or right, but the only ideology that mattered was organized crime.

Some of the worst news came from Colombia, where coca and cocaine production reached record highs amidst another year of bad news regarding the historic peace agreement with the region’s oldest political insurgency, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC). The demobilization of ex-FARC members has been plagued by government ineptitude, corruption, human rights violations, and accusations of top guerrilla leaders’ involvement in the drug trade. And it may have contributed directly and indirectly to the surge in coca and cocaine production.

It was during this tumult that Colombia elected right wing politician Iván Duque in May. Duque is the protégé of former president and current Senator Álvaro Uribe. Their alliance could impact not just what’s left of the peace agreement but the entire structure of the underworld where, during 2018, ex-FARC dissidents reestablished criminal fiefdoms or allied themselves with other criminal factions; and the last remaining rebel group, the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN), filled power vacuums in Colombia and neighboring Venezuela, making it one of our three criminal winners this year. Meanwhile, a new generation of traffickers emerged, one that prefers anonymity to the large, highly visible armies of yesteryear.

Also of note in 2018 was a surge in synthetic drugs, most notably fentanyl. The synthetic opioid powered a scourge that led to more overdose deaths in the United States than any other drug. Fentanyl is no longer consumed as a replacement for heroin. It is now hidden in counterfeit prescription pills and mixed into cocaine and other legacy drugs. It is produced in Communist-ruled China and while much of it moves through the US postal system, some of it travels through Mexico on its way to the United States. During 2018, the criminal groups in Mexico seemed to be shifting their operations increasingly around it, especially given its increasing popularity, availability, and profitability. The result is some new possibly game changing alliances, most notably between Mexican and Dominican criminal organizations.   

Among these Mexican criminal groups is the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG), another of our three criminal winners for 2018. The CJNG has avoided efforts to weaken it with a mix of sophisticated public relations, military tactics and the luck of circumstance — the government has simply been distracted. That is not the say it is invulnerable. The group took some big hits in its epicenter in 2018, and the US authorities put it on its radar, unleashing a series of sealed indictments against the group.

Mexico’s cartels battled each other even as they took advantage of booming criminal economies. The result was manifest in the record high in homicides this year. The deterioration in security opened the door to the July election of leftist candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador. AMLO, as he is affectionately known, did not necessary run on security issues, but he may have won on them, and in the process, inherited a poisoned security chalice from his predecessor. While Peña Nieto can claim to have arrested or killed 110 of 122 criminal heads, AMLO faces closer to a thousand would-be leaders and hundreds of criminal groups.

The rise in the availability of cocaine and fentanyl greatly impacted the United States, which remains one of the world’s largest consumers of drugs. But 2018 showed that the days of the US using drug policy as a foreign policy hammer may be nearing an end. In the run-up to the United Nations General Assembly, for example, the Trump administration’s four-pronged “Call to Action” went largely unanswered by other countries in the region. Canada, meanwhile, legalized marijuana, and Mexico’s newly elected president considered a radical departure from the law and order approach the Trump administration promotes.

Still, two years of Donald Trump’s strange, haphazard foreign policy has had a devastating impact on foreign relations in the region and has opened the door to transnational organized crime. To begin with, Trump has largely abandoned years of anti-corruption efforts in Central America, while his administration faces near constant accusations of corruption inside his own regime.

Specifically, 2018 will be remembered as the year the US government stopped supporting the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG), the UN-backed adjunct prosecutor’s office in that country. During nearly 10 years in Guatemala, CICIG-led cases have imprisoned presidents, vice presidents, vice presidential candidates, former ministers, bank owners, hotel owners, and many more. But this year, current Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales — who is also under CICIG investigation  — began lobbying the White House and its allies directly, and eventually succeeded in cobbling together a coalition of accused elites. Morales sidelined the CICIG and exiled its celebrated Colombian commissioner, despite pressure from US Congress to keep the judicial adjunct in the country.

Other presidents, most notably Honduras President Juan Orlando Hernández, has played a similar game and largely succeeded in neutralizing that country’s version of the CICIG, the Support Mission Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (Misión de Apoyo contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad en Honduras – MACCIH). In February, Juan Jiménez Mayor, the head of the MACCIH, abruptly resigned. In an open letter published on his Twitter account, Jiménez said he left because of lack of support from MACCIH’s progenitor, the Organization of American States (OAS), and concerted efforts by the Honduran congress to undermine the Mission. In both Honduras and Guatemala, there have also been constitutional challenges to the MACCIH’s and the CICIG’s mandates. But, on a positive note, the re-election of the relatively active attorney general in Honduras may make efforts to neutralize anti-corruption forces there moot, most notably on one investigation that inches very close to President Hernández himself.

None of this seems to bother Trump, who spent 2018 engaged in a near permanent political campaign in the US, much of which revolved around conflating immigrants fleeing criminality with the actual criminal groups going after them, like the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13), something we tackled in our three-year investigation into the gang. Even worse, his administration’s border policies are actually helping organized crime. And his administration seems to have abandoned any pretense of pushing for human rights or a free press, even while the region remains the most dangerous place on earth to be a journalist largely because of the organized crime, corruption, and impunity that US allies like Morales and Hernández foster.

Indeed, Trump’s disregard for law, order and the truth allowed demagoguery to flourish, and nowhere was this clearer than in Brazil, where the rightward turn was even sharper than for its Colombian neighbors. After getting stabbed during a political rally, the military-evangelical populist Jair Bolsonaro — who was often described as a “Brazilian Donald Trump” — surged to the presidency on a racist, xenophobic platform that combined higher prison sentences, militarization of the war on crime, and turning back regional efforts to legalize certain illicit substances.

But if 2018 is any indication, bullying his way towards a more secure Brazil — which saw an astounding record of 63,880 homicides in 2017 — may not be so easy, even if it was a popular solution. The year witnessed another round of fighting in different parts of the country, including a series of battles between the Family of the North (Familia do Norte) and the Red Command (Comando Vermelho), which effectively ended a 3-year pact between the two groups. However, it was the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando Capital – PCC), which continued to pose the biggest threat, expanding both within Brazil and the region, and putting it at the top of our list of criminal winners for 2018.

Ironically, it was the leftist government of El Salvador that most resembled the militaristic Bolsonaro anti-crime strategy in 2018. The Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional – FMLN), effectively green-lit a hardline strategy that reminds many of the same regimes that FMLN guerrillas once battled against before it turned into a political movement. In 2018, the party also codified its most draconian measures and largely protected the intellectual authors of the most egregious human rights violations, even while the results of these measures remained spotty at best.

Meanwhile, gangs like the MS13 showed their ability to adapt in 2018, and to exert their political muscle in ways that continue to surprise, most notably in the capital city, San Salvador. Here the former mayor, and current leading presidential candidate Nayib Bukele —  himself a political chameleon who swapped from the leftist FMLN to a rival centrist party — negotiated with the gangs so he could start reshaping the city’s Historic Center into a more family-friendly — or at least, tourist friendly — area. The approach in many respects worked; as violence was down, the center got some much-needed structural upgrades, and new businesses opened. A drop in homicides this year suggests that the FMLN and other political operators may have also noticed the political results and may be seeking to accommodate the gangs as well in the lead up to the February elections.

Towards the middle of the political spectrum was Costa Rica, which in April elected Carlos Alvarado Quesada of the center-left Citizens’ Action Party (Partido Acción Ciudadana – PAC) as president. There, the election did not seem to turn on citizen security, but the survival of the new president’s administration may. Homicide rates are at record levels, in large part because Costa Rica is playing a greater role in transnational criminal activity, but possibly also because 2018 showed that the country’s security forces may be more deeply involved in crime than ever.

On a political spectrum all his own was Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro, who was reelected in April in an exercise that seemed to confirm that he has long since dispensed with any pretense of democracy. As we chronicled in a multi-part special investigation, Venezuela has effectively become a vehicle for criminal interests. The reasons for this center on the emergence of homegrown criminal groups that are both inside of the government and connected to it; the abdication of the state of its duties especially as it relates to prisons; and the death of any viable economic system to support the corruption and ineptitude that prevail in the Maduro government.

The result was nothing less than chaos in 2018, with thousands of refugees who flowed daily into other countries. The unprecedented refugee crisis brought with it desperation and, inevitably, more organized crime. In short, Venezuela became a regional crime hub in 2018, a place where everything from stolen fuel to teenage girls and rotten food was for sale and every space was open for competition. The government did not seem to mind. It responded by launching a cryptocurrency tied to its failing oil industry, even while the First Lady was fighting off accusations of drug trafficking.

Venezuelan migrants trek through Peru.

Amid the stark zero-sum political squabbles, there is an outlier, a beacon of hope even. In 2018, Argentina seemed to be searching for some sort of happy medium in the battle against crime. The government made a push to improve data collection and intelligence gathering, while it punched up its arrest and seizure statistics. It has implemented a community policing program, even while it has flirted with using a militarized approach along the borders and elsewhere.

The results are coming in fits and spurts. The dismantling and trial of one of the country’s most violent criminal groups, for example, was upstaged by its continued ability to operate from prison. And a new plea deal law opened a window into official corruption, most notably among politicians connected to the former government of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.

As Argentina’s Security Minister Patricia Bullrich told InSight Crime in an interview in 2018, the government’s plan is almost perfect. “We set into motion what we call the 80/20 model: 80 percent intelligence, 20 percent chance,” she said.     

It was, in 2018, a refreshingly candid remark, an admission that not every program is as advertised.

Credit: Ap Images