By Jeremy Kryt
Cartels are getting their swagger back in Colombia, drug-war violence is skyrocketing in Mexico, Central American countries like El Salvador and Honduras are now saddled with some of the highest homicide rates in the world, and parts of Brazil are open battlegrounds. So just what’s behind the angry ride of the apocalypse through this hemisphere?
What we’re seeing is the rise of insurgencies that have no ideology beyond greed, but wage guerrilla wars as fearsome as those of the past that claimed to represent the poor and oppressed.
Bogota thought it had just ended its 50-year-old civil war with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) — but surprise! — the drug-fueled killing goes on. Other rebel groups remain defiantly active, and there are signs that the FARC peace accords might not be a done deal just yet, as attacks persist.
One of the reasons FARC commanders can’t convince units to stand down is because those guerrillas in the mist are still running lucrative cocaine production operations. Meanwhile, other narco-traffickers in the Andean nation are firmly on the comeback trail. Add it all up and Colombia is churning out more coca now than it did back when Pablo Escobar was blowing up planes and running for congress, with production at a whopping 710 tons in 2016.
As for Mexico, a recent study makes the case that the current infierno de violencia is now the second-worst conflict in the world behind Syria. In El Salvador the murder rate is 81 per 100,000, with Honduras lagging just behind, making them the deadliest countries per capita in the Americas. As in certain parts of Mexico, the security crisis is so severe in El Salvador that citizen militias called auto-defensas are taking up arms to fight the gangs themselves.
The loss of state control to violence-crazed, paramilitary outlaw and vigilante groups across Latin America is an ominous sign, indicative of a twisted new species of conflict that experts say is already impacting U.S. interests.
In his original, superbly researched, and well-titled book, Gangster Warlords: Drug Dollars, Killing Fields and the New Politics of Latin America, author Ioan Grillo characterizes the conflicts roiling the region, flat out, as “crime wars.”
“Crime groups and the gunmen they command in Mexico and Central America are not like the traditional insurgents of 20th-century Latin America in that they don’t have a clear ideology whether it be Marxist or Islamist,” Grillo tells The Daily Beast by phone from Mexico City.
“But they do act in ways that go way beyond regular criminals or even the mafia in terms of confronting security forces,” he says. These bandit battalions can involve “martial forces of up to 500 people in ground battles with light infantry weapons, including RPG-7 rocket launchers, which they use to shoot down helicopters.”
While outfits like the Sinaloa cartel in Mexico, Colombia’s FARC, or the Salvatrucha gangs of El Salvador “do control territory in certain ways, [they] don’t see themselves really trying to defeat the central government,” according to the British-born Grillo, who has spent more than a decade reporting from crime-war conflict zones across Latin America.
Instead of trying to take over the state apparatus, as ISIS has done in parts of the Middle East, “cartels and gangster warlords look for weak governments that they can bully and corrupt into allowing them to have as much power they want.” They don’t need to set up schools and run waterworks, but they do “put violent pressure on the government to achieve certain things,” such as unfettered control over narcotics production zones or shipping routes.
These are “groups whose power is based on violence, who are often led by psychopathic individuals, with a tremendous capacity for violence,” many of whom can be “heavy drug users themselves,” Grillo adds. But he also points out that there’s a distinct and nasty method to the madness, which marks “criminal insurgents” as distinct from common, garden variety scofflaws:
“They’re well-armed killers obeying instructions and working within a structure,” Grillo says. It’s “a big and complicated problem,” he concludes, and “national security [can be] threatened.”
U.S. Citizens in the Line of Fire
Although some of the renewed violence in the drug wars will eventually reach the U.S., some of it is already having an impact on U.S. citizens. Over the past two decades, tens-of-thousands of North American Baby Boomers, most of them retired, have moved to Latin America in search of a better quality of life and lower cost of living. According to researchers who follow migration trends, these expats could soon find themselves the line of fire as drug-related violence intensifies.
“There are major concentrations of U.S. and Canadian citizens living in Mexico and other Latin American countries who could soon be affected by the surge of violence, and some of them have already been,” says Dwayne Sweeney, a former researcher at Georgia State University.
According to Sweeney, expats in Mexico and Colombia may face the greatest risk. “Foreign residents living in San Miguel de Allende and the Lake Chapala area have mostly been able to avoid the violence in recent years but that appears to be changing. As drug violence increase, we are seeing an increase in other types of crime, including kidnappings,” he says.
Sweeney also foresees danger for expats living in Colombia. “Over the past several years, the number of expats living in Medellin and Bogota has grown rapidly and now, as violence increases, we are seeing many of them head for the exit. They came thinking the days of Pablo Escobar were long gone and now they realize that’s not the case,” he says.
The story is different in another popular expat destination, Ecuador. “There is almost no drug production there and government has done a good job of moving the transportation of drugs off shore,” he says. “Ecuador is caught between Bolivia and Peru, major producers, and Colombia, but the country has invested heavily in anti-drug law enforcement and it appears to be paying off.”
“Narcoterrorism” and You
Dr. Robert J. Bunker, a security consultant who teaches at Claremont Graduate University in California, sees eye to eye with Grillo on the threat posed by the cartels and their criminal cousins. And he uses the term “narcoterrorism” to define the tactics they employ.
Narcoterrorism “represents a form of psychological warfare — many times utilizing extreme forms of torture and victim dismemberment — that is meant to intimidate and coerce” rival crime groups, authorities, and local populations, Bunker writes, in an email to The Daily Beast.
Bunker, who has also taught at the U.S. Army War College, says Mexican cartels in particular pose a “major threat” to the United States, involving “creeping institutional corruption along the American side of the border.”
One of the major frontier flashpoints of late is the Mexican city of Reynosa, just across the border from McAllen, Texas. The turf war between the Gulf Cartel and the Zetas for control of Reynosa has claimed about 50 lives since the dust-up began in April, and American citizens allegedly have come under fire as well.
Mexican journalist Emmanuel Gallardo, who specializes in crime war coverage, says the Gulf Cartel is the top dog in Reynosa, in part because of a willingness to swell their ranks with “very young sicarios (hitmen), many of them just teenagers, who have no education” or job prospects.
He describes zones of mob rule within the city where “everything is controlled by the Cartel del Golfo, even the Jefe de Manzana (Block Chief), and the municipal leaders.”
Their opponents, the Zetas, were originally formed by disgruntled dropouts from the Mexican army. Although they’ve been somewhat weakened by clashes with authorities, Bunker still calls the Zetas “the poster children of narcoterrorism” who are “special forces trained, extremely ruthless, and highly competent in psychological warfare techniques.”
Recent reports indicate that smugglers are increasingly able to penetrate the U.S. without even breaking a sweat, as hundreds of border agents accepted some $15 million in bribes over the last few years (and those are just the ones who got caught).
“Mexican border plaza cities and crossing areas controlled by the cartels are able to generate ‘zones of corruption’ that can potentially extend along the trafficking corridors northwards,” Bunker writes. “The U.S. can readily handle violence directed at it, but the undermining of governmental trust among its citizenship is an entirely different matter.”
Know Your Enemy
Writer Ioan Grillo points out that many of the countries embroiled in mass-scale crime wars share certain common traits, such as “governments which are corrupt, with largely dysfunctional justice systems, and high rates of impunity.”
Economics also plays a role, according to Grillo, as most of these violence-wracked nations are also known for “divided populations with high rates of poverty, a few rich people, and a struggling middle class.”
While Bunker agrees that there are similarities in the symptoms that lead to explosions of well-organized crime groups, he also notes distinct differences from region to region:
“The Mexican cartels are far more sophisticated” than their counterparts, he says. Some of those groups can “field tactical units that possess armored SUVs, body armor, and infantry small arms that include assault rifles and grenade launchers, [and] 50 Cal sniper rifles.”
The Maras plaguing Central America “are far less militarized — more representative of violent street and prison gangs. They operate more at the handgun, shotgun, and rifle armament level but have been known to utilize IEDs,” Bunker says.
Then there is Colombia. According to Grillo, the conflict there is more of a hybrid that blends powerful cartels with a “more traditional Marxist insurgency, a more traditional war.”
Bunker concurs. “The FARC is an interesting case. They have guerilla training and access to infantry small arms.” With disarmament deadlines delayed, and the peace process uncertain, FARC foot soldiers have taken to sharing the lessons they learned in five decades of anti-government operations.
Reports coming out of Mexico claim FARC fighters have been schooling cartel sicarios there, and “we are seeing some numbers of their former fighters now going over to local Colombian and Brazilian street gangs to tactically train their members and provide new enforcer capabilities,” says Bunker, who has also advised Congress on security concerns.
The favelas (ghettos) of Brazilian cities have long been home to powerful gangs like the Red Commandos, which specialize in local narcotics trafficking. More recently, violence has flared up in the northern Amazonas state, as crime groups, often run by imprisoned leaders, battle for control of a drug “superhighway” near the regional capital of Manaus.
Taken altogether, Bunker sees the rise of these forces as part of a new, worldwide trend, one that “exists outside of the modern Clausewitzian paradigm of state-on-state conflict,” he adds.
“What most people do not realize is that what we are seeing take place with the cartels and narcos is but one component of a larger global struggle. Engagements with al Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq, Syria, and other countries represent yet another component of the wars now being waged [by insurgents] against the modern state form.”
Criminal Insurgencies, Civil Wars, and the Klan
While the criminal insurgencies in places like Colombia and El Salvador are certainly capable of deadly violence, the Mexican cartels are the most virulent of such groups operating in Latin America. There were 23,000 homicides in Mexico last year, making it the second-deadliest conflict zone in the world after Syria, and ranking it ahead of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Even more disconcerting is the fact that most of the bloodshed in Mexico results from small arms fire, with few casualties resulting from airstrikes or the use of artillery.
The soaring death toll (the murder rate has gone up now for the last three years in a row, increasing by at least 50 percent in one out of three states since 2016), has some observers wondering at what point Mexico’s “crime war” might slip into full-blown civil war. And it’s not just a question of semantics.
“If we can’t figure out how to categorize things we can’t figure out how to respond,” says Greg Downs, a University of California, Davis professor of history, in a phone call with The Daily Beast.
Downs points out that the phrase “civil war” carries an unpleasant stigma, since the phrase can grant unwanted legitimacy to the other side. During the early days of the fighting between the Union and the Confederacy, he says, it was called “revolution” or a “rebellion,” and the terminology “didn’t really harden into ‘Civil War’ for another 40 years.”
The author of the highly acclaimed After Appomattox, says that “virtually all [civil conflicts] include insurgencies and widespread criminal activity. They’re all wrapped up together.” Concrete definitions are “always going to be unclear in the moment.”
He goes on to mention a popular, 19th century term for these murky, low-grade, seemingly endless wars: “Mexicanization,” which was coined to describe “how countries fell into cycles [of violence] they could never escape from.”
Yet he stops short of calling Mexico’s current crisis a civil war, at least by the textbook definition of the phrase.
“Insurgency lies in this in-between state — a civil war is a claim of sovereignty. Are the cartels making the claim of a shadow state? Or is it the kind of older question of who makes the law where I am?”
Looking back through history, Downs draws an analogy between the narcos plaguing Latin America today, and groups of racist militias that roamed the South during the Reconstruction Era.
The cartels, he says, are “much closer to the Klan than to the Confederacy. The Klan didn’t want [to] write laws, but they believed they could make the law.”
How to Win (or Lose) a Crime War
So what can be done to end Latin America’s crime-war conundrum?
For Gangster Warlords author Grillo, the struggle needs to take place “on a global level.”
In part, he advocates international drug policy reform in order to reduce the thug armies’ profits from black market narcotics.
Grillo also suggests changing “the reality of ghettos which are outside the system [and] of helping these areas” with education programs and social work.
Mexican reporter Emmanuel Gallardo says that, in his country, the first step is for the state to clean up its act, and eliminate “corruption and impunity” for criminals.
“Here in Mexico if you have enough money and you commit a crime you just pay and are let go,” Gallardo tells The Daily Beast. “With money you can do whatever they want. You can kill a journalist if you want, and no one is going to stop you.”
Like fellow journalist Gallardo, Grillo also sees that building “real justice, law enforcement they can trust, real security for people,” may be the most challenging hurdle of all.
“The justice system has a lot of problems in the U.S., but it’s still largely functional in that people who commit murder go to jail,” Grillo says, contrasting it to the situation in Mexico “where most people who commit murder don’t go to jail.”
Less than 3 percent of homicides result in a conviction in Mexico, according to the Wilson Center, and other crime-war wracked countries in Latin America have similarly low rates.
Security consultant Bunker says local and state authorities are often simply outmatched:
Because the narcoterrorist groups “engage in both corruption and coercion, neither police nor military responses on their own are sufficient,” he says. “Police do not possess combat capability and the military does not possess anti-corruption and investigative capability. This is why these groups are so hard for states to deal with — they are literally evolving into nation-state killers.”
Bunker recommends “integrated law enforcement and military” forces which can be used “together or separately as appropriate to the threat…”
Civil War historian Downs worries that, in the absence of serious social reforms, even such a unified strategy won’t be enough: “With overwhelming force, states can break up an insurgency,” but criminal insurrections “don’t tend to come in ones — they come in groups.”
That raises a “dispiriting lesson from Reconstruction,” he says, referring to the Union Army’s futile attempts to quash the Klan. “It’s hard to keep it from turning into whackamole.”
Despite the difficulties, Downs warns against a policy of “acquiescence” whereby certain regions are abandoned to insurrectionists in order for state actors to achieve “stability at the cost of democracy.” And he likens the plight of freed people in the post-Reconstruction South to the struggle faced by poor campesinos and indigenous populations in many parts of Latin America today where “gangster warlords” often hold sway.
Cartels want to be left alone “to rule their fiefdoms, not for symbolic reasons,” but for economic ones, Downs adds, “to make money” and “assert control over the laboring population.”
That kind of criminal control — that new brand of narco-feudalism — helps explain why the “Pale Rider,” Death, is running roughshod over so many parts of Mexico, and Central and South America.
The failure to win the crime wars, Downs says, means nothing less than “surrendering democracy to oppression.”
Jeremy Kryt has reported on the drug war and human rights issues from Mexico, Central America, and Colombia in the Daily Beast. His work has appeared in the Huffington Post, the Earth Island Journal, and In These Times magazine, among others. He lives in Chicago and travels often on assignment.