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GameChangers 2023: Through the Looking Glass

The year 2023 was like staring through the looking glass, with Latin America and the Caribbean becoming even more surreal than usual. Nations thought to be safe suddenly found themselves worrying about crime sprees, while a country wracked by violence elected a candidate promising more community policing. The president of the sole, illicit fentanyl-producing country in the region denied it had any role in that production. And the US reestablished ties with two still-defiant pariah states.

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Welcome to InSight Crime’s GameChangers 2023, where we highlight the most important trends in organized crime in the Americas over the year.

The year 2023 was like staring through the looking glass, with Latin America and the Caribbean becoming even more surreal than usual. Nations thought to be safe suddenly found themselves worrying about crime sprees, while a country wracked by violence elected a candidate promising more community policing. The president of the sole, illicit fentanyl-producing country in the region denied it had any role in that production. And the US reestablished ties with two still-defiant pariah states.

Meanwhile, a mafia-style government apparently cracked down on its most notorious prison gang. The most popular crime-fighting president in the Americas sprang a top gang leader from jail. The region’s bloodiest prison riot in years was in a female-only facility. And a former guerrilla-turned president reaped what he’d once sowed, as he tried to forge “Total Peace” among warring criminal and insurgent factions looking to benefit from a cocaine bonanza.

Searching for the Next Ecuador

Of all these countries, Ecuador’s downward criminal spiral stands out. What was once a relatively tranquil place has become a cauldron of violence and criminality, capped by the assassination of a presidential candidate, Fernando Villavicencio. The violence, which begun in the prisons, has spread across the country, especially to the trafficking corridors and dispatch points for cocaine consignments.

In spite of these trends, Ecuador’s front-runners for president spent most of the campaign season this year highlighting social and economic solutions. While this changed somewhat after Villavicencio’s assassination, Ecuador’s new president, Daniel Noboa, seems to understand that he cannot face crime with repression alone and has proposed things like more community policing.

From Rhetoric to Reality on Ecuador’s Security Challenge

“Poverty, inequality, lack of opportunity, and underemployment generate frustration and despair, often driving people to crime. Therefore, any effort to reduce violence must include an inclusive socioeconomic development strategy,” read Noboa’s official presidential platform.

But the stark reality he faces once in office may trump any plans he had on the campaign trail. Surging cocaine production in neighboring Colombia has fed the rise in violence, and Ecuador’s ill-prepared security forces and prisons have allowed crime to take root.

The rapid decline of Ecuador’s security situation has other countries worried they might be next. Among them is Chile. While its homicide rate remains low compared to most of the rest of the region, a spike in crime and violence in the northern part of the country, as well as attacks against the country’s vaunted Carabineros police force, has Chileans concerned.

Polls show Chileans, more than any other country in the region, are concerned about the rise in crime. Much blame is heaped on foreign-based groups, and while the Venezuela-based Tren de Aragua has a significant presence in Chile and elsewhere, the responsibility for Chile’s tumble is not the result of the presence of one criminal organization.

Another relatively crime-free nation that scrambled in 2023 was Costa Rica. Once an oasis amid a sea of violence and civil wars, the Central American country now finds itself in unfamiliar territory as a crime and violence hotspot. In 2023, for the second straight year, it broke its own homicide record. Like its counterpart, Ecuador, much of the surge in crime is reportedly connected to rising cocaine and marijuana trafficking, as criminals shift from traditional hubs such as the port in Limón to newer trafficking corridors.

Another country to make organized crime news in 2023 was Uruguay, long one of the region’s most stable and peaceful democracies. Uruguay’s problems do not yet warrant the red flags flying in Ecuador, Chile, and Costa Rica, but it has something they do not: a prominent international criminal player. His name is Sebastian Marset, who in July nimbly escaped a 2,500-member strike force assembled against him in neighboring Bolivia. With connections in Europe, the Middle East, and throughout South America, Marset is the consummate modern-day trafficker — a broker who has more of an international network than a physical base, and employs a flare for business more than a private army.

America’s Synthetic Drugs Find New Markets

These international networks are drawing global players from elsewhere to the region. There are Nigerians in Brazil and Albanians in Ecuador. The globalization of the world economy, back on track after the interruption of COVID-19, means growing multinational coalitions with increasingly diverse criminal portfolios. These offerings include synthetic drugs, whose rise in use in the United States may not soon be replicated in the rest of the Western Hemisphere, but whose modus operandi may change the illicit drug landscape forever.

Latin America’s synthetic drug production, once focused solely on the United States, is starting to reach Europe and penetrate domestic consumption markets. Producers rely on precursors coming from the legal global chemical industry, and the only way to stop it is to better regulate that industry. However, few governments have the means or the political will to do so, lest they risk slowing the flow of chemicals used for legal purposes.

The country with the most acute challenge in this regard is Mexico. Although Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador continued to deny that criminal groups in his nation produce illicit fentanyl, InSight Crime showed in a 2023 report exactly how prolific a production hub the country is for the drug.

How Fentanyl Is Synthesized in Mexico

Much of this fentanyl is fueling an epidemic of overdose deaths in the United States and roiling relations with Washington. US political rhetoric vilifying Mexico and threatening military action inside its territory is not helping, nor does the US obsession with the theory that two “cartels” have created a kind of farm-to-table distribution system that is “poisoning” suburbanite kids.

The reality, as we documented, is something much more sinister: a dispersed, decentralized criminal network that is much harder to dismantle, even if — as the Mexico and the United States did — you capture and extradite one of the world’s top suspected fentanyl traffickers. And even if — as elements of the Sinaloa Cartel did — you put a ban on the illicit production of fentanyl. The steep drops in wholesale and retail prices of fentanyl evident in 2023 further illustrate the challenge ahead.

What’s left is a sobering example of the power and resilience of these new synthetic drug markets, the most popular of which is not fentanyl but methamphetamine. Methamphetamine produced in the Americas is spreading to places as far away as Australia and beginning to impact places like Mexico, where use is spiking and its production is polluting the environment.

Diplomatic U-turns

While tensions over counternarcotics policy with Mexico persist, the US diplomatic stalemate with two other countries were broken in 2023. In October, Venezuela released five political prisoners and agreed to some reforms to open political space for opposition candidates. The United States, in return, lifted some sanctions. The agreement followed years of saber-rattling, extraditions, dramatic drug trafficking trials, and prisoner swaps. Yet, this détente seems likely to be temporary, as Venezuela refuses to give opposition politicians a run at next year’s presidential elections and threatens to annex half of neighboring Guyana.

The Venezuelan government began a historic crackdown on the country’s most notorious prison, Tocorón, the Tren de Aragua’s center of operations. The Tren de Aragua remains a powerful criminal group, but the raid may have upset the balance of power in Venezuela and beyond, given the Tren de Aragua’s regional presence. But nothing is as it seems in Venezuela, and prison leaders or “pranes” were able to escape security force operations, which smacked more of political theater. As InSight Crime wrote in a July investigation, Venezuela’s government relies on criminals to help it secure much needed access to criminal rents and maintain a lid on political opposition.

The United States also had an about-face regarding El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele. El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly, at Bukele’s behest, famously began a state of emergency in March 2022, which has led to the arrest of as many as 77,000 people, mainly young men, according to a police intelligence report InSight Crime obtained. The crackdown worked. The gangs are largely neutralized, both inside and outside of the prison walls where they have flourished, and polls show Bukele is the most popular president in the Americas. He is also positioned to sail through the 2024 elections, even though the country’s constitution prohibits second terms.

But the crackdown was also controversial, as it came amid the suspension of due process and other basic civil and human rights, which led to the arrest of thousands of innocent civilians. Bukele received private and public rebukes by the US government, including one young woman whose case we chronicled. (She was released shortly after our article was published.) In October, the US attitude seemed to shift, at least publicly, when the State Department’s Assistant Secretary of Western Hemisphere Affairs, Brian Nichols, had an “excellent” visit with the president.

However, not everyone in the US government is on board with the change in attitude, especially after the November arrest of one of the country’s foremost leaders of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) — Élmer Canales Rivera, alias “Crook” — in Mexico and subsequent deportation to the US to face terrorism charges. According to Salvadoran government records, Crook should have been in a Salvadoran jail. However — as the US Justice Department noted in subsequent public court filings — not long after the US requested his extradition, the Bukele government had secretly released Crook, given him a weapon, and housed him in a luxury apartment for a few days before arranging for a human smuggler to shuttle him across the El Salvador-Guatemalan border.

In the end, it was yet another paradox. And during 2024, reconciling the postures of the US State Department and the US Justice Department may be as hard as reconciling why Bukele’s government released Crook just before it launched its historic crackdown on the gangs.

Governments Caught Off-Guard

Honduras hit the headlines in 2023. In June, following years of clear warning signs and explicit pleas, members of the 18th Street gang attacked the wing holding their rivals of the MS13. The result was 46 dead — many of them hacked to death with machetes — in the region’s bloodiest female-prison massacre on record.

InSight Crime had spent the previous few months visiting the prison, chronicling the lives of the incarcerated, the modus operandi of its criminal groups, and the growing tensions between them. Among the most alarming findings was how authorities’ stereotypical perceptions of female inmates as much less aggressive had blinded them to the possibility that anything of this nature could ever happen. They ignored repeated warnings and a crucial data point: That a smaller version of this same event had already happened three years prior.

Honduran authorities were not the only ones wearing blinders in 2023. Colombia’s President Gustavo Petro barreled through the year making hasty ceasefire agreements with multiple criminal and insurgent groups under his ambitious “Total Peace” plan, then scrambling to patch them up as soon as they sprung the predictable leaks.

Perhaps the most egregious example of this pattern came with the National Liberation Army (Ejército Nacional de Liberación – ELN), the country’s last remaining guerrilla army and one of its foremost criminal operators. Although the ELN is notorious for kidnapping, the ceasefire did not require it to stop this crime. Chaos followed, and as negotiations stalled on multiple fronts, the process appeared to be unraveling.

Petro’s naïveté is surprising, not least because he is a former guerrilla. But then again, it was hard to blame him. What used to be up was now down. What used to be cold was now hot. 2023 was the year we were all staring through the looking glass.

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