GameChangers 2021: COVID chaos, corruption, deforestation and synthetic drugs

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Welcome to InSight Crime’s Criminal GameChangers 2021, where we highlight the most significant organized crime trends in the Americas during the year.

This year has seen criminal upheaval in the Andes, troubling links between organized crime and ecological destruction, especially in the Amazon basin, and an explosion of designer drugs from Mexico. All in a context of corruption, undermining of democracy and the continuing COVID-19 pandemic.

While Mexican cartels grabbed the headlines throughout the year, it was Colombia that experienced tumultuous and dynamic changes among its underworld operators, which spilled over into Venezuela and beyond. of the. In December, two former leaders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC), Darío Velásquez, alias “El Paisa” and Henry Castellanos Garzón, alias “Romaña”, were killed in two separate shootings in Venezuela with other criminal organizations, probably other ex-FARC factions.

SEE ALSO: Former FARC commanders El Paisa and Romaña confirmed to be killed in Venezuela

Their deaths strangely resembled those of Seuxis Pausias Hernández Solarte, alias “Jesús Santrich”, another former FARC commander who had been killed in Venezuela a few months earlier. The three leaders were part of a dissident FARC insurgency, which calls itself the Second Marquetalia (Segunda Marquetalia). The killings were mysterious and significant, undermining attempts by the ex-FARC Mafia to build a drug-trafficking empire in Venezuela and revive an insurgent movement after the 2016 peace accord and the official demobilization of the rebel army .

All of this happened in Venezuela, which once hosted Colombian rebels but can now find them increasingly troublesome guests. Another ex-FARC faction, the 10th Front, possibly behind the killings in El Paisa and Romaña in December, also ambushed the Venezuelan armed forces. These fighting between the military and non-state armed groups (NSAGs) have been common in Colombia, for more than five decades after the start of a civil conflict, but they are new to Venezuela and what happened there. State of Apure could be a sign of what’s to come.

INSERT CARD FROM https://insightcrime.org/investigations/apure-proxy-war/

Other Colombian guests from Venezuela, the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN), were the biggest winner in 2021. As ex-FARC mafia factions fight each other – and sometimes the military Venezuelan – the ELN continued to expand its tentacles largely unopposed, forging its own more subtle alliance with Maduro’s regime and expanding into Colombia. As the ELN deepens its involvement in drug trafficking, it has also established a strong presence in the lucrative mining areas of Venezuela.

However, the ELN did not have its own lane in 2021. In June, its longtime commander, Nicolás Rodríguez Bautista, aka “Gabino”, retired. The new leader, Eliécer Erlinto Chamorro, alias “Antonio García”, has experience but may find it difficult to keep order in the base of the region’s increasingly lucrative criminal cases.

Another large Colombian criminal organization and cocaine exporter, the Urabeños, suffered its own upheaval in October when Colombian special forces captured its longtime leader, Dairo Antonio Úsaga, aka “Otoniel”. It was the culmination of a five-year manhunt, which had already led to the death or capture of many Urabenos commanders and financial operators, including some of suga’s relatives. Yet the group appears impervious to such disruption, given that its horizontal bloc structure and independent franchises are not dependent on any criminal economy or single contact.

As more and more high-profile Colombian criminals are identified and eliminated, the cocaine trade becomes increasingly underground. The country is exporting more cocaine than ever before, but the industry’s brokers are increasingly invisible and unknown, using cowardly networks and criminal outsourcing to run their businesses. These poorly managed networks are increasingly the norm in the region. They are difficult to encircle from a law enforcement perspective.

This year was also marked by record deforestation in the Amazon and environmental damage elsewhere. While politics are behind much of this, organized crime was also a driving force. For example, mines in the northwestern Andean and Pacific regions, where the Urabeños thrive, account for nearly 60 percent of Colombia’s illegal gold and are responsible for much of the deforestation in these regions. .

Other countries face similar stress tests as criminal enterprises plunder natural resources and their illicit business ventures inflict collateral damage to the environment. In Venezuela, dozens of NSAGs, some aligned with Maduro’s regime, are exploiting the country at a record rate with no regard for the environment. In Peru, the expansion of coca cultivation in the Amazon basin threatens tropical fauna and jungles. And in Brazil, there seems to be a growing link between timber trafficking and cocaine trafficking, as the rainforest is under attack from all sides.

Combating these trends currently seems beyond the ability or the will of any government. Brazil is an example. Despite its promises, Jair Bolsonaro’s government has failed to devote the necessary resources to tackling massive forest fires, slowing down agribusiness or tackling crime. And in at least one case, it appeared that members of his own administration could profit from the Amazon timber trade.

Of course, the corruption was not limited to Brazil. And if corrupt governments had something in common in 2021, it was their growing concern to protect themselves and their allies from accusations arising from foreign investigations, while ensuring an even firmer grip on the levers of government. to be able to. This was particularly evident in Central America, where several traditional US allies have sought to undermine the efforts of newly elected US President Joe Biden to stem corruption.

In El Salvador, President Nayib Bukele put the last nail in the coffin of international judicial watchdogs in June, when he dissolved the International Commission against Impunity in El Salvador (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad de El Salvador – CICIES) . The CICIES was modeled on two other watchdogs, which operated in Honduras and Guatemala until they too were disbanded by presidents wary of their power and reach. For its part, the CICIES began to investigate certain members of the Bukele administration for mismanagement of emergency funds during the coronavirus crisis.

The decision was part of the larger overhaul of Bukele’s justice system. Just a month before destroying the CICIES, Bukele also ousted the attorney general and five High Court judges. In the weeks that followed, the country’s High Court made a series of controversial decisions, including postponing the extradition of a prominent member of the street gang Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) to the United States who had been accused of terrorism, and the release of a convicted person. launderer. These measures increased tensions between El Salvador and the United States.

SEE ALSO: 3 takeaways from Xiomara Castro’s historic victory in Honduras

Tensions have also grown between the United States and Honduras, where besieged President Juan Orlando Hernández ended his tumultuous tenure under a cloud of US drug trafficking charges, punctuated by the life sentence of Hernández’s own brother in an American courtroom in March. Hernández’s replacement, Xiomara Castro – who won by a surprising margin the November elections – will take office in 2022 where she will have the unenviable task of dismantling the corruption and criminal networks that Hernández’s National Party has helped to set up. in place over the past decade.

Nicaragua and Guatemala have also, in their own ways, sought to evade international scrutiny. As the Nicaraguan elections approach, President Daniel Ortega cracked down on opposition politicians and the media. In perhaps its most brazen assault on democracy in 2021, the Ortega administration placed opposition candidate Cristiana Chamorro under house arrest for alleged money laundering in June; she was one of many candidates, opposition leaders and critics detained during the campaign. In November, Ortega won his fourth term in what some observers have called “false“Election.

The Guatemalan government, meanwhile, defied the international community by continuing to undermine or overturn recent court cases against the country’s economic and political elites, as well as target the investigators who had conducted these cases. The climax of this campaign came in July, when the country’s attorney general sacked Juan Francisco Sandoval, head of the Office of the Special Prosecutor against Impunity (Fiscalía Especial contra la Impunidad – FECI). Sandoval fled the country and denounced the attorney general, while the Guatemalan government issued an arrest warrant for him.

The Biden administration has sought to build bridges with these countries. He sent a special envoy to El Salvador where Bukele snubbed him. He sent Vice President Kamala Harris to Guatemala where its president openly challenged her in an awkward public meeting.

Tensions have also reached a boiling point between the United States and Mexico. In January, the government absolved former General Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda of drug trafficking charges. Cienfuegos, who led the Mexican armed forces between 2012 and 2018, was arrested in the United States in October 2020 and charged with aiding a faction of the Beltrán Leyva Organization. In one press conference the day after the Mexican attorney general’s office acquitted the former general, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador claimed that the United States had “fabricated” evidence.

The breakup came at a terrible time. The United States and Mexico are both struggling to contain the increasing use of synthetic drugs. In 2020, the United States saw a more than 30% increase in overdose deaths, most due to an increase in the use of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid. And the United States has more than double the number of methamphetamine users than cocaine users. For its part, Mexico is grappling with the increase in methamphetamine use.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has also sounded the alarm bells about designer drugs. In one report released in October, UNODC highlighted the mass production, purity and scope of methamphetamine made in Mexico. He noted how Mexican criminal groups disseminated their knowledge with other criminal groups in Europe and beyond.

Back in the Americas, there were also worrying signs. In September, Brazilian authorities made a colossal ecstasy seizure in the state of Santa Catarina, in the south of the country, at two facilities, showing that the production of synthetic drugs is increasing in the country. And in Canada, a biker gang crossed paths with Mexican criminal groups to sell fentanyl further north. In a region once dominated by the cocaine and heroin industries, the diversification towards synthetic drugs, initiated by the Mexicans, has changed the criminal landscape.

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