Guest Blogger: Jenny Lafaurie

19 mayo, 2014

Las ideas presentadas aquí no representan las opiniones oficiales, ni del Departamento de Defensa (DoD), la Universidad Nacional de Defensa (NDU) o el Centro de Estudios Hemisféricos de Defensa William J. Perry. Para cualquier uso, en todo o en parte, de las mismas, o para su publicación, se sugiere la debida coordinación con el autor del documento. El uso de estos materiales no está autorizado.


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Organized Crime in Latin America: Trend Overview

The complexity and multidimensionality of organized crime as a challenge to public security in Latin America can be exemplified by the many forms it takes – e.g. human trafficking networks, prison gangs, terrorist groups, transnational criminal syndicates- and its ability to mold and adapt to an ever-changing reality on the ground – e.g. increased pressure from security forces, growth in drug consumption-. However, an important question arises: what are the trends behind the well-oiled, interconnected machinery of transnational crime in the Americas? While conducting extensive research on the subject for Dr. Evan Ellis, I stumbled upon a very interesting paper written by Bruce Bagley entitled “Drug Trafficking and Organized Crime in the Americas: Major Trends in the Twenty-First Century”. Let us take a closer look at some of these trends.

The first trend identified by Bagley is the Increasing Globalization of Drug Consumption. The latest data available by the World Drug Report 2013 provides us with very telling evidence about the significant transformation of drug use around the world: although the consumption of“traditional” drugs such as heroin and cocaine has stabilized, the latest trends have seen a significant increase in the use on new psychoactive substances (NPS) - such as synthetic cannabinoids, ketamine, and plant-based substances- at the global level. [1] The main challenge with NPS´s is that manufacturers constantly modify such drugs in order to escape existing legal frameworks that ban many of the variants of these substances which, according to the report, number approximately 251 different kinds. [2] Furthermore, NPS can be “mass produced in clandestine locations regardless of climate or other factors that limit traditional drug production.” [3] In the case of Latin America, NPS are becoming increasingly popular, with synthetic drugs such as 2C-B and ketamine already identified as being available in countries such as Peru, Colombia, and Argentina. However, cocaine, marihuana, and heroine are still the most consumed drugs in the region.

The second trend,the limited victories and unintended consequences of the U.S. led War on Drugs, especially in the Andes, is very telling. The United States has spent 1 trillion dollars in the War on Drugs ever since its inception by President Richard Nixon in 1971. More than forty years later, however, the War on Drugs is far from achieving its goals. According to an independent study published by the International Center Centre for Science and Drug Policy in 2013, the War on Drugs failure is evidenced by the following crucial facts: the world supply of illegal drugs has grown –in spite of increasing major law enforcement and interdiction efforts-; not only have cannabis, cocaine, and heroin become cheaper in the last two decades, but they have also become more potent and pure; and worldwide consumption of opiates, cocaine and marijuana increased in the 1998-2008 period –and the consumption figures, according to the 2013 World Drug Report, have remained stable.[4]

The unintended consequences of the War on Drugs serve yet as another important piece of evidence that reflects its failure. In the particular case of the Andes, the limited victories achieved in Bolivia and Peru in the late 1980´s and early 1990´s with US- backed crop eradication and air interdiction programs only managed to push crop production to Colombia, making it the world´s top producer of cocaine –Peru was recently declared the biggest producer-.[5]The lucrative illegal drug trade has been the main source of funding for guerrilla groups, and paramilitary and criminal bands (BACRIM), making it the moving force behind drug-related violence in the country, where thousands have died and millions of others are internally displaced. The launch of Plan Colombia in 2000 has, without a doubt, changed the security landscape in Colombia. However, great challenges still remain, including the balloon effects created from gains derived from interdiction and major drug seizures, mainly the shifting of drug production back to Peru and Bolivia.

The Proliferation of areas of drug cultivation and of drug smuggling routes throughout the hemisphere: The Balloon Effect is yet another important trend identified by Bagley. As previously mentioned one of the unintended and most challenging consequences of the efforts to disrupt illicit drug production and trafficking in one place causes criminals to shift towards new areas of cultivation and devise new smuggling routes in places where control and surveillance by authorities is weak. Such is the case with the balloon effect taking place in Peru, where drug production and trafficking in the Apurimac and Ene River Valley Region (VRAE), the country´s primary area of coca cultivation, has significantly increased during the last couple of years. Traffickers have devised new smuggling routes through Bolivia, Brazil (especially through Manaus, the capital of Amazonas state), and Ecuador where they make their way to Argentina (a growing market of illicit drugs), Africa, Europe, the United States, Australia, and Asia.[6]

Bagley also identifies thedispersion and fragmentation of organized criminal groups or networks within countries and across sub-regions (“Cockroach Effects”). A very telling example of this trend is the reality that is taking place in the VRAE region in Peru, where there are approximately 16 narcotrafficking clans operating, each one producing between 300 and 500 kilos of drugs every one to two months using the Shining Path for protection in the transit of drugs they produce (mainly cocaine).[7] A similar situation is unfolding in the Huallaga Valley, where 16 drug clans operate, making each a profit of approximately $6 million dollars a year.[8]The Pichis Palcazú Valley, on the other hand, has become the focal point for cocaine flights where light aircraft that export the cocaine produced in VRAE and Huallaga to Brazil and Bolivia. Currently, there are between 15 to 20 active runways –out of 40-.[9]Efforts by the Peruvian Police to blow up the clandestine runways have failed, as traffickers are quick to rebuild them and are shifting their cocaine air bridge to the VRAE region itself (another example of the balloon effect).[10]

The last trend is the failure of political reform and state-building efforts (Deinstitutionalization Effects). Corruption is perhaps one of the biggest obstacles to political reform and state-building efforts in Latin America. Many examples abound, including the deeply entrenched link between corruption and organized crime in Mexico. State and local corruption run deep across the country. For example, many officials across Mexico have been found to have close links to organized crime. Daily threats from gangs and cartels force officials to submit to these organizations’preferences influencing decisions such as who is hired as police chief and which companies are awarded contracts.[11] Having a strong anti-corruption legal framework – such as the Código Penal General and the National Agreement for Transparency- has not been a sufficient condition for deep structural changes that are able to take place from the very roots of the complex factors that make Mexico one of the most corrupt countries in the region.

The complex dynamics of transnational organized crime in the Americas calls upon a reevaluation of the current strategies governments in the region are employing. It is important to take into account that the realities and weaknesses of each particular state in the Americas (e.g. corruption, lack of confidence in the police force) have been brilliantly used to the advantage of criminal groups, especially given that an ever expanding and profitable drug market across the globe is at stake. Profit is indeed the driving force behind these extensive and interconnected criminal groups. What about legalization? Will it be the solution needed to win the War against Drugs? Should a public health approach take center stage instead of penalization? It will be interesting to see the trends that develop in Uruguay with the legalization of Marihuana use and production. On the other hand, what about corruption? Given the deeply entrenched nature of corruption in national governments, is it realistic to assume that eventually successful political reform will take place? What about citizen security reform? These are all important questions that will deserve further study.







[1] New Psychoactive Substances (NPS). Available from:

[2] World Drug Report 2013. Pg. 114. Available from:

[3] Werb D, Kerr T, Nosyk B, et al. "The temporal relationship between drug supply indicators: an audit of international government surveillance systems." BMJ Open 2013. Pg. 7. Available from:

[4] Knafo, Saki. "Yet Another Study Proves the War on Drugs is Failing." The Huffington Post. October 1st, 2013. Available from:

[5] See, Bagley.

[6] Parkinson, Charles. "Police Report Shows Evolution in Drug Trafficking." Insight Crime. October 10, 2013. Available from:

[7] Los Clanes de la Cocaína. IDL-Reporteros. 2012. Available from:

[8] Ibid.

[9] Mella, Romina. "Peru's Cocaine Air Bridge." Insight Crime. November 8, 2013. Available from:

[10] Ibid.

[11] Althaus, Dudley. "Death and Corruption: Organized Crime and Local Gvt in Mexico." October 18, 2013. Insight Crime. Available from: