Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

How Transnational Crime Is Mutating in the Age of COVID-19 in Latin America

An overview of the region's challenges, and what governments can do about them.
In San Salvador, a soldier stands next to a sanitary perimeter to prevent the spread of COVID-19.Photo by YURI CORTEZ/AFP via Getty Images
Reading Time: 6 minutes

This article is adapted from AQ’s special report on transnational organized crimeLer em português | Leer en español

During the earliest days of the pandemic, some believed COVID-19 might prove to be a negative for large organized crime groups such as MS-13 and the Sinaloa Cartel. Lockdowns kept people inside, suffocating both legal and illegal commerce. The ensuing recession hit Latin American economies harder than any other in the world, on average, meaning less money in everyone’s pockets. As governments mobilized money and personnel to meet the challenge, there was talk of a new level of engagement that could strengthen bonds between citizens and the state, possibly squeezing out transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) in some areas.

A year later, we know that’s not what’s happening. The operational capacity, adaptability, expansive networks, and deep pockets of TCOs have provided them with opportunities to exploit the voids left by overwhelmed institutions and stressed market chains across the region. Although it is still too early to assess any enduring changes, TCOs are showing signs of adapting and even growing stronger in numerous ways, some of them surprising.

Indeed, the pandemic may ultimately be a turning point that saw unfortunate crime and security-related trends of the past three decades accelerate even faster. The question is what governments can do to stop it.

Where We’ve Been

Even before the pandemic struck, Latin America and the Caribbean was home to some of the most pervasive, adaptable and violent criminal groups in the world. Since the 1990s, they have evolved from highly centralized and hierarchical criminal structures to expansive and agile criminal networks engaged in a wide range of illicit activities. Today, they manage diverse portfolios that include everything from trafficking in drugs, humans, weapons, minerals and other illicit commodities to extortion, kidnapping for ransom, cybercrime and money laundering. These groups have also evolved from largely hemispheric-focused and cash-based criminal enterprises to global criminal networks that are deeply entangled with public and private sectors across the region.

Recent history illustrates their tremendous resilience. In South America, the Andean nations of Bolivia, Colombia and Peru remain major producers of cocaine despite decades of eradication policies. Past Colombian and Peruvian insurgencies weathered governments’ security forces and evolved into de facto TCOs with global reach and expansive illicit portfolios. After the demobilization of Colombian paramilitaries in 2006, criminal bands, or BACRIM, emerged as part of an evolution in illicit trafficking organizations that were far more expansive and diverse than their predecessors. According to InSight Crime, an organization that studies citizen security in Latin America, Colombia today is experiencing a fourth generation of criminal enterprises that possess tremendous business acumen, greater technological sophistication, and are better at both blending in with society and fusing legitimate businesses with illicit activities.

In Venezuela, the regime of Nicolás Maduro has turned the country into a major hub for drugs departing the region bound for the United States, West Africa and Europe. The Cartel of the Suns (Cartel de los Soles) is a major drug trafficking organization comprised largely of members of the Venezuelan military. Venezuela also acts as a major source of sex trafficking in the hemisphere. The São Paulo-based First Command of the Capital (PCC) has expanded its footprint beyond Brazil’s borders to take a larger stake in the international movement of illicit narcotics leaving the Southern Cone. Mexican drug cartels remain some of the most pervasive and powerful TCOs in the world. Among them, the Sinaloa Cartel, Jalisco New Generation, Gulf Cartel and Los Zetas Cartel operate all over the world and have been responsible for more than 61,000 disappearances and many more deaths since the 1960s. By the end of 2020, Mexico was on track for its most violent year on record, with more than 40,000 murders and a projected homicide rate above 27 per 100,000 inhabitants. The recent arrest and subsequent release of Mexico’s former defense minister General Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda highlights how entrenched criminal organizations are within Mexico.

In Central America, gangs such as MS-13 (Mara Salvatrucha) and Barrio 18 (18th Street Gang) survived nearly two decades of government hardline policies aimed at dismantling them, but—perhaps because of those policies—gangs still run rampant, with more than 50,000 members across El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. Studies show that homicide rates sometimes fall in countries where criminal groups consolidate power – only to rebound again later if dire economic conditions, weak governments and social shocks remain. Central America attracts other transnational criminal organizations that relocate there to take advantage of dire economic conditions, weak governments, diminishing rule of law, and proximity to important markets in the United States. Finally, the Caribbean is once again providing TCOs with vital smuggling routes that connect producers with consumers. Weak visa restrictions and citizenship by investment schemes are attracting TCOs looking to use the Caribbean as a hub for various criminal activities, including illicit trafficking and money laundering.

What’s Happening Now

Now, because of the pandemic, TCOs are expanding into other sectors, including those that the state is simply too overwhelmed to handle.

Criminal groups have been providing a kind of governance in areas virtually abandoned by state institutions. For example, in Central America gangs undertook the task of enforcing government lockdowns and distributing food supplies to people in their communities. In Mexico, several criminal groups, such as Chapo Guzmán’s organization and the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, have been handing out food to the communities they control as a way to gain public legitimacy. In Brazil, gangs in various favelas in Rio de Janeiro imposed curfews and social distancing on residents and local shops, while also handing out sanitation items, medical supplies and food. If citizens continue turning to criminal groups to provide services, governments will be forced to pay a heavy price to dislodge these groups once the pandemic is gone.

COVID-19 is also creating new economic opportunities for these groups. As the recession pushes even more Latin Americans into the shadows of informal economies, the trade in illegal goods and unlawful commodities may become even more valuable. For example, there has been a surge in trafficking of medical supplies, everything from surgical masks, hand sanitizer and disinfectants to therapeutic and test kits. Recently, INTERPOL’s Secretary General Jürgen Stock warned that criminal groups were planning to infiltrate vaccine supply chains.

Economic hardships are creating a parallel epidemic of emotional distress, increasing the global demand for psychotropic substances, many of them heavily regulated or outright illegal. TCOs are encountering a more demanding and expansive market with weaker institutions. Some countries, such as Brazil, may emerge as new critical transnational players in the flow of illicit goods, given the disruption to existing flows and new demand in places like Europe. Yet most subregions in the Americas will experience the consolidation of their existing transnational illicit networks. The Andes may see an increase in illegal crops, as they will become one of the safest sources of revenue for local peasants and farmers. Central American and Caribbean criminal organizations, in many cases with the help of corrupt politicians and state operatives, will secure their status by controlling transshipment hubs and providing jobs to needy populations.

In this environment, state and nonstate actors in Russia, China and other countries may find it easier to partner with criminal organizations and corrupt institutions in the Americas. These countries and their private sectors are known for circumventing the rule of law and often prefer working with corrupt actors. China’s growing influence has provided support to Maduro in particular, allowing his kleptocracy to survive.

The social costs of the pandemic will be massive, especially considering that the region’s economies may not fully recover to pre-COVID levels until as late as 2025, according to the International Monetary Fund. According to the World Bank, before COVID-19, there were already more than 20 million ninis—youths who are neither working nor in school—in Latin America. For thousands of young people, participation in criminal groups may become the only chance for survival. Widespread joblessness and underemployment will also increase the pressure for legal and illegal migration, feeding human trafficking chains. Reports showed, for example, that when the Colombian government closed its border with Venezuela to contain the COVID-19 outbreak, thousands of desperate Venezuelan migrants ended up falling into the clutches of criminal organizations operating in the area.

How Governments Can Stop It

Many national governments will react to the growing power of TCOs, and the ensuing public outcry, by redirecting resources to expand security institutions. Other governments may find themselves forced to negotiate with criminal organizations, a practice already in place in El Salvador, and common at subnational levels where local governments are weak. These kinds of negotiations will appear politically expedient, especially in countries with elections over the next 18 months, but in the absence of appropriate institutional restraints and improvements to key institutions, such responses have rarely been successful in the past.

Any truly effective government response must tackle the devastating economic consequences of the health crisis, the erosion in state capacity, and the collapse of institutional legitimacy. Governments must dig deep and find the political will to expand the fight against impunity, widespread corruption, and lack of institutional capacity. They must deepen structural reforms in key institutions such as the administration of justice, and national and local police forces, and improve the ability to deliver vital services such as education and public health to their citizens. Without comprehensive efforts to overhaul accountability institutions and a sustained investment in human capital, any traditional security-focused effort is doomed to fail.

Substantial investments in human and social capital must be accompanied by increased accountability in political institutions. The authoritarian regression that several countries are now facing will certainly worsen the crises unleashed by the pandemic. Therefore, tackling transnational organized crime under these circumstances demands that the resilience of democratic governance be greater than the resilience of the region’s deeply entrenched criminal groups.

In addition to building sustainable domestic capacity, and given the scale of the emergency and the increasing transnational nature of illicit networks, governments must work multilaterally to streamline resources, share information and improve intergovernmental coordination. Combating TCOs is a global issue that demands more meaningful multilateral collaboration with countries inside and outside the hemisphere.


Cruz is the director of research at the Kimberly Green Latin American and Caribbean Center at Florida International University’s Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs. Fonseca directs the Jack D. Gordon Institute for Public Policy and is an adjunct professor in the Department of Politics and International Relations at Florida International University’s Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs.

Tags: organized crime
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