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Drug violence in Latin America: data, facts and strategies

Published on November 07, 2022

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What follows are the strategies that have been applied in other Latin American countries in the face of the outbreak of drug violence, the results they have had, and what lessons they leave for Ecuador.

Violence related to organized crime and drug trafficking is escalating in Ecuador. It is a ruthless scenario that has been played out in other countries. Drug violence in Latin America has been a recurrent and structural problem, one that our country had briefly experienced before, but never at current levels.

In the last two years, prison massacres due to clashes between drug gangs have increased, murders of prosecutors and judges have intensified, and so has violence in the streets. One of the most important outbreaks occurred last week, after the transfer of prisoners from the Litoral Penitentiary was announced. The notice ended up causing multiple attacks in Esmeraldas, Guayas and Santo Domingo. Now, a state of emergency is in force in the three provinces to try to mitigate the effects of violence.

The presence of drug trafficking in Ecuador is not recent. In 2011 Jay Bergman, director of the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) for the region, said that Ecuador was becoming a kind of “United Nations” of organized crime.

According to him, drug traffickers from Albania and China used the country as a platform to obtain drugs and distribute them in their countries. A report in The Economist from November 2022 says that an Albanian drug trafficker named Dritan Rexhepi “is the successful model of the Balkan criminal emissary of cocaine in Latin America.’

Rexhepi is believed to have arrived in Ecuador in 2011 after escaping from a Belgian prison. Rexhepi was imprisoned in Ecuador in 2014, but from jail, the British media says he ran a successful drug trafficking business. Rexhepi is currently in prison in Ecuador and is also under investigation in Italy, Belgium and Albania.

In addition, there was already talk of the connections between the criminal gangs of Ecuador with the powerful cartels of Mexico, such as Sinaloa.

However, until 2017, the figures for violence were not as high and disputes over territories were not as frequent. Some have accused the government of that time of allowing the drug operation in the country in exchange for internal peace. A 2018 ‘Plan V’ investigation also pointed out that the links of the drug violence structures were found in the highest strata of the State and the government.

Now that violence has been unleashed in a way never seen before, Ecuador’s situation has been compared to that of Colombia in the 1990s or Mexico since the beginning of this century.

The authorities have even proposed plans similar to those that were handled —unsuccessfully— in these countries when drug violence increased. The political opposition of the current regime has proposed cross-death to remove the President as one of the possible measures to control the violence in the country.

This is a compilation of the strategies that have been applied in other Latin American countries in the face of the outbreak of drug violence, the results they have had, and what lessons they leave for Ecuador.

Colombia

Columbia in the 1990s

Since the late 1980s and early 1990s, Colombia has had an escalation of violence related to drug trafficking. Although there were already drug trafficking groups in the country in the mid-1970s, it is at this time that organizations led by people like Pablo Escobar, who founded the Medellin cartel, emerged and became stronger.

Since then, drug production increased has increased. Between 1980 and 1998, coca production went from 33,900 tons to 81,400 tons, an increase of 140%. Violence also increased — there were kidnappings of politicians and journalists, murders and shootings. Especially in the areas of Medellín and Cali, where the main cartels operated.

In 1992, the Colombian government, with the support of the United States, applied a strategy called the Kingpin strategy.

It consisted of capturing or eliminating the leaders of criminal gangs. The argument was that the cartels could not function without their leaders. In 1993, Pablo Escobar was killed, and the Medellin cartel began to weaken, which seemed to prove this theory.

At the same time, however, the Cali cartel began to gain power, but was later disbanded by the government. In addition, although the two main drug cartels no longer existed, Colombia continued —and continues— to have problems due to organized crime and drug trafficking.

The Kingpin strategy didn’t actually eliminate the cartels completely: it fragmented them. It was estimated that in 2002 there were around 300 “little cartels” in Colombia. They took control of the business and drug routes. In addition, this caused the historical guerrillas, such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), to increase their participation in drug trafficking.

In fact, after the 2016 peace agreement, with which a large part of the FARC demobilized, many of its dissidences, which continue to operate in Colombia, became financed by drug traffickers. One of these narco-dissident groups, the Oliver Sinisterra Front, was responsible for the kidnapping and murder of three Ecuadorian journalists in 2018.

The Columbia Plan

‘Plan Colombia’ was the main strategy of the government of that country to combat drug trafficking. It was approved in 2000, in a joint action between the governments of Colombia and the United States, then headed by Andrés Pastrana and Bill Clinton. It had the financial and military backing of the United States government. It was in force for 15 years, until it was replaced by another program called ‘Paz Colombia.’

According to the definition of the Colombian government, the plan was a “strategy to fight drug trafficking, strengthen institutions, recover security, consolidate social development.” However, while it was active, it was unable to reduce coca plantations and reports of human rights violations increased.

In the 15 years that it lasted, says the Colombian government, the plan “had the approval of the United States” to ratify plans and allocate resources to strengthen Colombia’s defense sector. In 2016, the Colombian government revealed that $141 billion were invested in this plan. Of that figure, $10 billion came from the United States and $131 billion was funded by Colombia.

According to the Colombian government, the plan “achieved the strengthening of the intelligence and criminal investigation capabilities of the armed forces that allowed the weakening of drug trafficking networks as well as groups outside the law.” However, ‘Plan Colombia’ has been questioned by international human rights organizations.

Amnesty International criticized the implementation of ‘Plan Colombia,’ insisting that because of it, human rights violations and illegal mining have increased.

Gimena Sánchez, Andes director of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), which is dedicated to defending human rights, said in November 2021 that ‘Plan Colombia’ was established as an anti-drug program. However, says Sánchez, it was based on “a very wrong theory:” if the coca crops were uprooted, it would be much more expensive to traffic the drug and that would reduce the demand in the United States and the public health problem in Colombia.

For this reason, says the director of WOLA, they concentrated on fumigating the plantations — because it was the fastest way to get rid of them— and establishing a military and police presence in the areas generally occupied by the guerrillas. Sánchez says that this did not stop traffic in Colombia or affect demand in the United States.

One of the main purposes of ‘Plan Colombia’ was to reduce coca plantations, which are mainly used to produce cocaine. However, a report on illegal crops in Colombia, made by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), says that the levels of crops in 2020 were similar to those of 2001. In the first 6 years of the plan, crops and cocaine production increased by 15 and 4%, respectively.

Another of these consequences was that the coca plantations spread over more regions of the country, instead of being concentrated in just a few, as it was before the plan. Gimena Sánchez says that this happened because the drug traffickers moved to different places to make smaller crops when the fumigation arrived in the area where they were.

One of the most questioned aspects of ‘Plan Colombia’ was the spraying of glyphosate to eradicate coca crops. Glyphosate is a substance classified since 2015 as carcinogenic by the World Health Organization, the same year that Colombia stopped using it to fumigate coca plantations.

A WOLA study says that 1.6 million hectares of coca plantations were sprayed with glyphosate to eliminate them. According to WOLA, the fumigations put the health of thousands of people at risk and did not work to eliminate the drug.

Even so, this is one of the strategies that have been proposed for Ecuador. On June 8, 2022, at one of the events of the IX Summit of the Americas, President Guillermo Lasso said that “just as Colombia once proposed a ‘Plan Colombia’ to the United States, my intention is to propose a ‘Plan Ecuador,’” in reference to the questioned strategy of the neighboring country, to combat drug trafficking.

Lasso said that “Ecuador is threatened by organized crime, drug trafficking” because in the last 15 years “to put it mildly, there were permissive governments with this illegal activity of drug trafficking.”

Drug trafficking, according to Lasso, is a problem shared with the United States and the European Union, where drug use is highly popular, in some cases legal and generally peaceful. However, drug violence remains in the producer and transit territories — such as South America.

However, ‘Plan Ecuador’ and what it would involve have not yet been finalized.

Politics and drug trafficking

In Colombia, the main discussion in its legislature was not presidential impeachment as a strategy to combat drug trafficking, as some groups have tried to do in Ecuador.

For years, Colombian legislators discussed amending its Constitution to decide whether to allow drug criminals to be extradited to the United States.

The discussion of these modifications, since the end of the 1980s, was one of the reasons why the kidnappings and murders of politicians, journalists and other important figures in Colombian society increased. The attacks were mostly caused by the Medellín cartel, led by Pablo Escobar, whose members dubbed themselves “los Extraditables.”

Unfortunately, extradition was not approved by the Colombia legislature until June 1991. That same day, Pablo Escobar surrendered to justice and entered the prison where he would live in luxury and from which he would escape a year later. In 1993, after 17 months of searching, Escobar was found and shot to death in Medellin while trying to escape.

The links between Colombian politics and drug trafficking have shown their dark links on several occasions. For example, Colombian authorities estimate that in the final stages of the search for Escobar, the Cali cartel invested $120 million to buy technology, pay informants, and bribe members of the Attorney General’s Office, the Administrative Department of Security, the Attorney General’s Office, the Police and the Army.

Another example of these links is the financing of President Ernesto Samper’s campaign.

In 1995, the judicial process —known as ‘the 8,000 process’— was opened to investigate then-president Samper, accused of using drug financing for his presidential campaign. The accusations arose after audio was leaked in which Cali cartel bosses admitted giving money to Samper’s campaign.

After months, the process was dropped for lack of evidence. However, in 1998 Samper admitted to being “a victim of this invasion in the campaign that brought me to the Presidency.” Samper said there was a plot against him by a “powerful alliance of national and international dark doors.” According to him, he was not aware of “that unfortunate circumstance.”

An article by Diana Gómez, a researcher at the Institute for Pedagogy, Peace and Urban Conflict of the Francisco José de Caldas District University, says that “drug trafficking as an illicit project has managed to completely assault Colombian institutions” for decades. She adds that in addition to conquering the institutional framework, “it manages to impose itself as a political power.”

That, says Gómez, has made it possible for it to influence government agendas, guarantee conditions in its favor and manage to impose its own rules to control society at an economic, political and social level.

What can we learn from Colombia?

Both ‘Plan Colombia’ and the Kingpin Strategy were proven to be failures in the years following their implementation. Neither of them managed to solve the drug trafficking problem or the country’s violence.

A study published by the Autonomous University of Manizales in Colombia in 2014 concludes that the strategies —especially ‘Plan Colombia’— showed that the army cannot counter the problem of demand. “Drug cartels will exist as long as there is a demand and there is a market for the consumption of illicit drugs,” it says.

In addition, it concludes that other internal problems such as unemployment and corruption must be solved. Especially the one that occurs in security, police and justice institutions. “The militarization of the drug war does not solve underlying problems such as socioeconomic ones,” says the study.

Something similar happens in Mexico. Both countries have problems related to economic and social development and inequality. This has meant that young people from the most vulnerable areas do not have work alternatives and are recruited by drug trafficking and organized crime organizations.

The study also concludes that allocating large amounts of money to the Army “does not solve the structural problems of society, which in turn incubate other social and security problems.” ‘Plan Colombia,’ says the study published by the Autonomous University of Manizales in Colombia, did not help to consolidate government institutions in Colombia, so the long history of corruption and weak institutions has contributed to the continuation of drug violence.

Mexico

The strengthening of the cartels

Since 2000, organized crime groups —especially drug cartels— have increased their power and penetrated government institutions due to the corruption of their officials. They did it during the government of Vicente Fox.

In the Fox government, his critics denounced, corruption increased and there were strong clashes between the main political parties. Those weakened institutions, like in Colombia, allowed organized crime and drug trafficking to advance.

In the Fox government, which lasted from 2000 to 2006, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, the leader of the Sinaloa cartel, escaped for the first time from a maximum-security prison. In the 13 years he was on the run he established himself as one of the most important drug lords in the world. Guzmán was captured once more in 2014 and in 2015 he went on the run again. In 2016 he was arrested and sentenced to life in prison.

In addition, during the Fox government, other cartels such as Los Zetas and La Familia Michoacana were strengthened. In those six years, crime increased and disputes over the control of drug trafficking routes raised violence to levels that had not been seen in the country until then.

The Merida Initiative

The situation did not improve in the following six years, in the government of Felipe Calderón. In addition, in 2007 Calderón reached an agreement with George W. Bush, then President of the United States, to make a ‘Plan Mexico.’ The name changed to the ‘Mérida Initiative,’ but it too leaned on militarization. Between 2006 and 2012, around 50,000 military personnel were distributed in various areas of Mexico to combat drug trafficking.

As in Colombia, the ‘Merida Initiative’ did not consider issues such as development, the reduction of drug use and demand, or the country’s socioeconomic problems. For this reason, the study by the Autonomous University of Manizales in Colombia says that the ‘Merida Initiative’ had only “limited victories.” Since its implementation, violence has continued and insecurity has increased in states such as Chihuahua, Sinaloa, Nuevo León, Michoacán, among others.

Between 2006 and 2012 there were around 70,000 executions related to drug trafficking. Since then, it has been proven that at least 10% of the victims were not members of organized crime. Rather, they were officials, journalists, and other innocent people.

Nor was it possible to destabilize the cartels. When the leaders were captured, the criminal organizations restructured and reorganized to continue operating. In addition, they transformed their modus operandi and diversified their criminal activities to avoid the authorities.

At the beginning of the Calderón government, in 2006, there were 6 drug cartels, by 2012, when his administration ended, there were 14. In the following years, these organizations have formed alliances with other groups in Central and South America to continue expanding.

Politics and drug trafficking

In Mexico —as well as Colombia and Ecuador— there were and are still, also accusations of alleged links between politics and drug trafficking.

In the 1980s, corruption has spread throughout several of the Mexican parties. This contributed to the fact that illegal businesses are not attacked and that they can grow, which has been called “a boom in the drug economy” in Mexico.

That increased mistrust in Mexican politics. At that time, those accused of corruption simply accused their competitors of corruption and claimed their innocence. Instead of working together to combat the growing problem of drug trafficking in Mexico.

This lack of solutions, the growing presence of corruption and the institutional crisis that began in 2000, has made it easy to produce, transport and export drugs in Mexico. The links between drug trafficking and the Police, the Army, customs and other institutions allow it.

What can we learn from Mexico?

As early as 2000, the country’s institutions were weak, and the country had serious corruption problems. One of the main ones was bribes from drug traffickers to the police, which facilitated the expansion of illicit activities and violence.

Another of Mexico’s problems that needs to be reformed is the prison system. In addition to not fulfilling the objective of rehabilitating prisoners, prisons do not stop organized crime. The study by the Autonomous University of Manizales in Colombia says that the leaders of the cartels who are imprisoned control criminal activities such as drug trafficking, kidnapping and extortion from within. That, it says, shows that the government cannot combat organized crime despite having the most dangerous criminals in jail.

In the years following the governments of Fox and Calderón, the situation has not improved either. In the government of Enrique Peña Nieto there were more than 75,000 homicides under investigation, 20% more than in the Calderón government.

The government of the current president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, is considered the most violent to date, according to figures for murders and investigations into violence. In August 2022 alone, there were 200 deaths from clashes between armed gangs in the country. In 2021, 45,000 Mexicans left their homes for fear of violence. It is estimated that by 2024, when López Obrador leaves power, there will be more than 190,000 deaths in his government.

This figure has increased 5 times since 2020. Bloomberg media cited a US military estimate that says that up to a third of Mexico is a “space without government” and that it is controlled by criminal organizations.

As long as corruption problems are not solved, the prison and judicial systems are not reformed and institutions are not strengthened, it is likely that the situation will continue to worsen in Mexico. The same could happen in other countries with similar problems, such as Ecuador today.

Peru

Peru is one of the countries that produces the most drugs in Latin America. However, their levels of violence tend to be lower than those of other countries. In 2010, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) published a report in which Peru surpassed Colombia in coca leaf production.

Despite this figure, the two countries had very different rates of violence. In 2010, in Peru there were 10 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants. While in Colombia there were 30 per 100,000 inhabitants. That does not mean that there is no violence. At the same time, clashes between gangs caused several violent episodes on Peruvian streets, especially in production areas and on drug exit routes.

Although in the following years, Colombia again surpassed Peru in production levels, cocaine crops in Peru have increased since 2015. Between 2019 and 2020, that production increased by 13%.

That has caused the violence to continue. In July 2022, the indigenous people of the central jungle of Peru alleged that the harassment, threats and intimidation of drug traffickers towards their leaders had increased. At least 4 of the leaders had been killed and others suffered violent attacks.

The Native Federation of Kakataibos Communities (Fenacoka) said in a statement that the police and military operations “have generated immediate retaliatory actions on the part of the drug traffickers installed in the central Peruvian jungle area.” However, the organization said it was “an important milestone and the first real blow to drug trafficking” and that it brought them hope after a “long process of constant complaints by the indigenous movement.”

Since 2021, the Peruvian government announced that it would have a “frontal combat” against delinquency and organized crime. The then Minister of the Interior, Avelino Guillén, said that plans were being made to eradicate illicit coca leaf cultivation. In addition, he said that they were going to improve the Police equipment and combat arms trafficking and extortion. There is still no plan similar to those that have been handled in Colombia or Mexico.

In September 2022, Ecuador and Peru began joint actions to combat drug trafficking. They did tests to monitor unidentified aircraft transiting between the two countries. However, an agreement must still be signed so that the work between the two countries can be done permanently.

What lessons remain?

The fight against drug trafficking and the violence that originates in Latin America still lacks a successful model that resolves all the causes and consequences. The cases of Colombia, Peru and Mexico are all examples of this. However, the attempts of the last 30 years have shown that drug production cannot be attacked alone, and that militarization is not the complete solution.

The weakening of the institutional framework, the political nexus of the cartels, widespread corruption, are all common factors in the countries of the region that Ecuador can look to as it tries to understand what is happening.

Of course, consumer demand in markets such as the US and Europe allow this business to continue to thrive. The rigidity of the legislation that insists on maintaining the criminalization of consumption, has made it one of the most lucrative industries in the world, which moves billions of dollars a year, and has seen an increase in production, sale and, also, confiscation of shipments.

In this scenario, the countries that have decriminalized certain consumptions in a strategic, well-regulated way and as part of a comprehensive action, such as Portugal, have given clearly positive results.

But, above all things, if other socioeconomic problems are not solved in Latin America such as lack of employment, corruption, prison crisis, among others, which abound in Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, Mexico, it will not be possible to combat or solve the violence caused by drug trafficking and organized crime, which many young people now see as a very short-term financial outlet.

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