Actualizado: ene 16

Por: Álvaro Castillo

Presidente y Fundador de ESPACIOH

Licenciado en Ciencias Políticas-Salve Regina University

Estudiante de Maestría en Seguridad Global y Estudios Estratégicos-Johns Hopkins University

Transnational organized crime has entrenched its roots across Latin America as this is a fertile and ideal land for criminal networks to proliferate due to the extreme socioeconomic disparities that predominate in its fractured and violence-plagued states. Violence is a multicausal problem, it can be predominantly attributed to the inequality crisis that prevails in Latin America, thus violence and inequality are strongly intertwined. Furthermore, socioeconomic disparities are also generated by multiple causes, which include poverty, corruption, impunity, weak democracies, extractive democratic institutions, and lack of human development, among many others. Latin America has one of the highest Gini Coefficients in the world, which measures income inequality across nations, ranging between 0 as the case of perfect equality and 1 for perfect inequality. According to a study formulated in 2020 by the Inter-American Development Bank titled The Inequality Crisis, the average Gini Coefficient in developed countries is 0.32, whereas in Latin America, on average, it reaches the alarming levels of 0.46. Furthermore, economist Simon Kuznets argued that there is a strong correlation between disproportionate income inequality and poverty. Books like Capital in the Twenty-First Century, written by Thomas Piketty, emphasized the vast degrading effects of unequal income distribution. For instance, the closer economies get to a 0.50 Gini Coefficient, the more susceptible they become to the occurrence of social conflict and even civil war. These disparities are seen in Latin America and the Caribbean, where “on average, the richest 1 percent takes in 21 percent, while the top 10 percent commands more than half of pre-tax national income” (Busso & Messina, 2020, p. 19). These inequalities have ultimately translated into high homicide rates. Latin America is a predominantly poor region, where people with the lowest incomes end up participating in organized crime out of necessity and as a means of subsistence. Furthermore, socioeconomic disparities are a characteristic of fragile democracies, which is an intrinsic issue in Latin America. Here, even government elites participate in organized crime, accepting bribes out of greed and creating a mafia-like system in the region where corruption, impunity, and violence prevail.

Chronic violence has been a systematic issue in Latin America as a result of fractured democracies. Throughout the twentieth century, there were dictatorships in various states in Latin America and The Caribbean, including: Bolivia, Peru, Paraguay, Uruguay, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela, Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Panama, Cuba, Haiti, and Dominican Republic. Furthermore, there were civil wars in countries like Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala, just to name a few examples, and military coups throughout the Latin American region. This zone has been destabilized by guerrilla groups like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), cartels like the Sinaloa Cartel, and gangs like “La Pandilla 18” and “La Mara Salvatrucha”. All of these non-state actors have, in one way or another, participated in organized crime by circumventing laws and escaping prison with the aid of corruption.

Fragile states in Latin America are more prone to corruption, human rights violations, and impunity, which end up hindering economic growth. Political divisions in this area have made the region vulnerable to transnational illegal activities that operate with the collusion of corrupt public officials, who receive kickbacks to turn a blind eye on crime. High levels of corruption and impunity have permeated across this zone; the “majority of Latin American and Caribbean citizens (53 per cent) think corruption increased in their country in the previous 12 months, while far fewer think it declined (16 per cent)” (Pring & Vrushi, 2019, p. 9). Corruption further stalls economic growth, and it also enables human rights violations and a culture of impunity to proliferate, as can be seen today in Venezuela. All the deadly challenges embedded with Latin American nations create the ideal conditions that attract criminal organizations to operate in this region. On the other hand, these hazardous conditions disincentivize foreign investment, widen socioeconomic differences and limit human development, further reducing a country’s chances for achieving economic growth. A great amount of Latin American governments have failed to provide their citizens with the proper conditions to foster human development. Ensuring hemispheric security will require a multifaceted approach that tackles corruption, impunity, and violence. Transnational criminal organizations are attracted to operate in fragile states and weak democracies in Latin America, because this region provides the ideal conditions for organized crime to thrive while enjoying impunity. Thus, violence is constantly being spread in geographical regions that have been excluded from development.

The geography of inequality is clearly marked in Latin America, firmly rooted in marginalized communities with weak government presence vulnerable to endless cycles of crime bestowed from one generation to another. Governments tend to abandon excluded urban neighborhoods, peripheral and rural areas, as a result, “peripheral areas of major cities, for their part, now act as magnets for gangs and extortion rackets” (Briscoe & Keseberg, 2019, p. 116). Thus, inequality can be identified as a unique characteristic in a specific geographical zone, not as a result of the natural resources found in these areas, but from anthropogenic causes. In these communities, unemployment and low-income wages are the norm that have deprived secluded citizens from receiving basic public services, health, education, development opportunities, and security. In peripheral and urban impoverished zones, families and their entire communities are highly prone to organized crime; “Roughly half of all illicit transactions in the world are taking place in countries experiencing a range of weak enforcement mechanisms, low levels of economic well-being, insufficient government capacity, and significant societal divisions” (Locke, 2012, p.1). Parents in these households are either unemployed or earning a low income, which limits them from providing their kids with proper education. Sometimes, within these poor families, people become involved in organized crime and sometimes become part of street gangs, just out of necessity and desperation to provide food for their families. Unfortunately, these practices are naturally conferred from one generation to another; teenagers in poor neighborhoods within cities erroneously follow the steps of their parents or older siblings, participating in illicit activities. From a very young age, these individuals become exposed to burglary, extortion, kidnapping, drug trafficking and other criminal activities that only spike the homicide rates in Latin America; “In 2016, 17 of the 20 countries and 43 of the 50 cities with the world’s highest rates of homicide—excluding those affected by armed conflict—were to be found in Latin America” (Briscoe & Keseberg, 2019, p. 115). Once a community becomes infiltrated with just one member of a criminal organization, illicit activities soon start to spread, hence creating a vicious cycle that leads entire families, their neighborhoods and even their newborns, to suffer from violence. These violent behaviors are the effects of anthropogenic activities, yet it cannot be ignored that geography and nature itself do play an important role in Latin America’s organized crime.

Drug trafficking has become a systemic problem in Latin America due to the intrinsic geographic features found in the region, which naturally create the perfect logistical chain for production, transshipment, and consumption of illegal narcotics. Andean countries in South America, such as Colombia and Peru, have vast coca producing fields. Cocaine is transshipped through densely vegetated forests and remote communities in Central America with weak government presence or even with the aid of corrupt authorities to reach the biggest global consumption market of drugs, the United States. Drug trafficking has become a critical part of the economy in the region, just in “Central America the value of cocaine trafficking is estimated at 5 percent of total GDP” (Locke, 2012, p. 3). Territorial controls exerted by criminal organizations with the support of bribed authorities have facilitated illicit operations for decades in unpatrolled waters both surrounding Mesoamerica and The Caribbean. Latin America is a lucrative hub for criminal networks, especially with cocaine trade; “Narcotics trafficking is by far the most lucrative trade with the annual value of heroin and cocaine estimated to be $153 billion” (Locke, 2012, p.3). This region is naturally bound not only to drug trafficking, but also to high levels of violence.

Organized crime has evolved as criminal networks have infiltrated governments and splintered into violent opposing cells. Today, criminal actors no longer just bribe government officials, but in fact they infiltrate entire government apparatuses, as occurs in Venezuela, where high ranking officials like Diosdado Cabello have been accused from partnering with the FARC and cartels for drug trafficking. Furthermore, from 1980 to the beginning of the twentieth century, there were only a few cartels across Mexico. Today, however, cartels have splintered into different factions, fighting over territory and drug trafficking routes. In fact, “Major drug cartels that once had the means to control the entire drug trade between Colombia and the United States have splintered into an inter-connected array of national and regional cartels, local mafias, and national and transnational trafficking networks” (Briscoe & Keseberg, 2019, p. 116). By 2018, more than 300 criminal groups were operating in Mexico. These violent organizations have learned to diversify their operations to become more profitable, practicing new illicit activities, such as human smuggling, extortion, kidnapping, and oil theft. Furthermore, today drug cartels have learned to become immersed in local communities, exerting complete territorial control of certain geographic areas, including its citizens, natural resources, and even local government authorities. As a result of this modus operandi, “local communities and authorities are both co-opted and intimidated” (Briscoe & Keseberg, 2019, p. 117). All of these cartel wars have led to an unprecedented spike in homicide rates. Additionally, criminal networks now have access to extremely advanced and sophisticated weapons, which make them more efficient and lucrative.

Nowadays, organized criminal groups in Latin America have mutated to become more powerful organizations while generating greater profits. Organized crime is a highly profitable market, according to the 2011 International Peace Institute World Report, it produces $330 billion in annual revenues. Furthermore, it is estimated that “the shadow economy could be in the range of 10 percent of global GDP” (Locke, 2012, p. 3). Extortion in Central America has become a widespread issue, primarily affecting the Northern Triangle. Just in Honduras, “some 79 percent of registered small businesses. . . and 80 percent of the country’s informal traders report they are extorted” (Briscoe & Keseberg, 2019, p. 117). These phenomena embody how even street gangs have learned to adapt, transitioning from risky and high exposure criminal activities like burglary to more profitable, subtle, and untraceable operations. Today, criminal networks invest in technology and even build their own narco-submarines. Furthermore, nowadays criminal organizations hire lawyers and accountants to be part of their network, sometimes they even invest in sending some of their youngest recruits to the university, to acquire specific skills that will be used to strengthen their organization.

Organized crime intersects with other transnational issues due to the spillover effects of illegal activities. For instance, money laundering is one of the biggest challenges for international security agencies. Today, Mexican drug cartels implement innovative tactics, such as “washing” drug proceeds in unthinkable places like China, purchasing chemical precursors needed to make meth that are found in Asia and synthetic drugs through Chinese intermediaries and cryptocurrencies. These same cartels are transporting drugs to the United States, where a security issue becomes a health problem as evidenced by the opioid epidemic and innumerable overdose deaths. Furthermore, organized crime causes irreversible damages to the social tissue of nations transnationally. This phenomenon unravels into different challenges, including corruption, increase in homicide rates, and drug dependency even among the youth of a country. Additionally, illicit activities like drug trafficking, illegal logging, mining, and fishing, deteriorate our environment. This is seen in Colombia, where the war on drugs has created a direct impact in Andean vegetated mountains. Aerial spraying of glyphosate in Colombia has proven, until today, one of the most efficient strategies to reduce cocaine cultivations, yet this tactic also translates into forest depletion. This cancerous herbicide is harming wildlife and polluting sources of water, food, and oxygen. Organized crime has multiple detrimental effects across the world.

Transnational organized crime is constantly affecting international peace and human security. This is seen in South and Central America, regions that are undergoing a migration crisis originating from a collapsed Venezuela and a corrupt Northern Triangle. Latin America has also become a major hub for human trafficking. Additionally, violent non-state actors are present across these regions, importing their deadly practices transnationally, which only yields a greater amount of casualties in the countries where they operate. Cartels and gangs are some of the most dangerous threats for international security as illicit drugs from South America are shipped through Caribbean routes to reach Europe, affecting the public health and security of people living in countries like Spain and Italy. The deadly effects of organized crime in Latin America can only be halted with the implementation of comprehensive, multistate, and long-term security strategies.

Fractured Latin American and Caribbean states can only achieve security by implementing regional focalized strategies that address the principal causes of crime in a holistic way. The endemic socioeconomic disparities in Latin America are the main causes of violence. Nevertheless, crime is multicausal, as social inequities are by themselves the result of multiple problems such as corruption and poverty. Both crime and socioeconomic inequalities are strongly related, and it is necessary for security agencies to prioritize the most violent territories in the region and the unique issues that are affecting them. Community engagement is necessary in these fractured zones with weak government presence, which have limited access to education, clean water, health services, energy, housing, employment, and food. These excluded communities end up being major hubs for organized crime. Gangs operate in specific cities in Latin America, thus where regional security efforts must be concentrated; “80 percent of homicides in Latin America’s large- and medium-sized cities occur on just 2 percent of streets” (Briscoe & Keseberg, 2019, p. 120). This happens in Honduras, where the majority of crime originates in four cities with strong gangs presence. Moreover, there are certain economic sectors, such as transport, where a vast amount of extortion-related homicides occur. Additionally, most crimes in Honduras occur during the weekends, thus the government must prioritize these days, going in accordance with the evidence of where the majority of crime is taking place. This same exercise of the focalization of crime has to be done in each state in the region, while investing in creating better conditions for citizens to thrive.

Governments in Latin America and The Caribbean must invest in long term human development programs that can gradually shorten and revert the inequality crisis in the region. Without proper education opportunities, children raised in low-income families will likely continue to encounter a great deal of challenges to receive a better education and consequently a superior salary than the one received by their parents. Investing in educating neglected communities will yield long-term opportunities for the less fortunate. Reinstating programs like The Plan of the Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle will empower governments to regain control of neglected zones that have been under the control of criminal groups. By investing in these secluded communities, it will no longer be necessary for impoverished citizens to participate in illegal activities, hence violence will be reduced, making a country more attractive for foreign investment, which bring jobs and economic growth. However, corruption must be mitigated for funds to reach their intended destination and be used to improve conditions in marginalized communities. Additionally, a Latin American version of OFAC would be an ideal resource in the fight against corruption. Justice systems will have to be strengthened to avoid the rampant impunity levels that have historically predominated in this region. Once the ideal conditions are established for governments to invest in human development, then, in the long run, Latin American states will have the capacity to generate better living standards, jobs, and security for all of their citizens. Until the gap of inequality is reduced and properly addressed by governments in the region, crime will continue to produce more deaths, thus extending the seemingly endless cycles of violence in Latin America.


Briscoe, Ivan and David Keseberg “Only Connect: The Survival and Spread of Organized Crime in Latin America, Prism, 8, no. 1, 1 March 2019, pp. 115-131.

Busso, M., & Messina, J. (2020, September). THE INEQUALITY CRISIS; Latin America and the Caribbean at the Crossroads. Retrieved December 10, 2020, from https://publications.iadb.org/publications/english/document/The-Inequality-Crisis-Latin-America-and-the-Caribbean-at-the-Crossroads.pdf

Gastrow, Peter “Transnational Organised Crime: The Stepchild of Crime-Combating Priorities,” Institute for Security Studies: Policy Brief, 15 October 2013.

Locke, Rachel Organized Crime, Conflict, and Fragility: A New Approach New York: International Peace Institute, 2012.

Pring, C., & Vrushi, J. (2019, September). GLOBAL CORRUPTION BAROMETER LATIN AMERICA & THE CARIBBEAN 2019; CITIZENS’ VIEWS AND EXPERIENCES OF CORRUPTION. Retrieved December 04, 2020, from https://images.transparencycdn.org/images/2019_GCB_LatinAmerica_Caribbean_Full_Report_200409_091428.pdf

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