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Latin America teams up against organized crime

Money, guns and cellphones were confiscated during a June 2011 operation targeting the criminal organization La Línea, which operates in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. (Courtesy of the Mexican Attorney General Office)

Money, guns and cellphones were confiscated during a June 2011 operation targeting the criminal organization La Línea, which operates in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. (Courtesy of the Mexican Attorney General Office)

By Sergio Ramos for – 18/06/2012

MEXICO CITY – Attorneys general, prosecutors and security specialists from 23 members of the Organization of American States (OAS) created a regional strategy during a high-level Hemispheric Meeting against Transnational Organized Crime in Cancún, Mexico in late May.

“We need a plan that allows our countries to combat the common threat that organized crime poses,” said Mexican President Felipe Calderón at the summit while he was flanked by Mexican Attorney General Marisela Morales and former Colombian Chief of Police Óscar Naranjo. “We cannot fight transnational organized crime through isolated or disorganized efforts.”

The strategy intends to accomplish the following:

  • ::Create a coordinating entity to expedite the exchange of information among Latin American countries to combat money laundering networks orchestrated by organized crime groups;
  • ::Establish a system so information can be used to build legal cases on suspects known to crisscross the region;
  • ::Prepare criminal and statistical analyses and studies on new operative schemes being used by transnational organized crime groups;
  • ::Strengthen the institutions that uphold security and peace in Latin American countries so they can’t be infiltrated by organized crime groups;
  • ::Share information to stop groups trafficking humans through Central America into the United States;
  • ::Toughen the regulations and controls for the sale and transfer of weapons.

“Facing organized crime on an individual basis is not very viable for Latin American countries,” Marisela Morales said in a statement.

During the meeting, which came as the result of discussions held during the VI Summit of the Americas in Cartagena de Indias, Colombia, in April, representatives emphasized it’s imperative the region works together to eradicate organized groups. The representatives agreed to discuss their fight against organized crime during future meetings in Guatemala and Chile.

Representatives at the meeting also discussed the region’s fight against narcotics, since narco-trafficking and organized crime are often intertwined.

In Bolivia, narco-trafficking generates about US$750 million annually, equivalent to 3.7% of the gross domestic product (GDP), said César Guedes, who represents the United Nations Office on Drug and Crime (UNODC) in the Andean nation.

Meanwhile in Peru, narco-trafficking generates profits of US$22 billion annually, representing 17% of the GDP, according to the National Commission for a Drug-Free Life (Devida).

“The money for transnational drug traffickers comes from moving the drugs through the producing countries in South America and Mexico to the consumers, who are basically in the United States and Europe,” said Alejandro Hope, a specialist on security issues with the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness and former adviser of the National Center for Investigation and Security (CISEN).

From Bolivia, Peru and Colombia – the biggest producers of narcotics in South America according to the UNODC – traffickers must traverse countries such as Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico to reach the United States.

It’s common for narco-traffickers to promote corruption in countries along the drug corridor, as they often pay authorities to look the other way. But narco-traffickers also have unleashed a wave of violence throughout the region, either by engaging in bloody firefight against counter-narcotics forces or rival drug gangs or cartels for control over lucrative smuggling routes, Hope said.

Seventy-nine percent of cocaine flights from South America make their first landing in Honduras before arriving at their next destination, Mexico. Meantime, 95% of cocaine smuggled into the United States enters through Mexico, according the U.S. Department of State.

Narco-traffickers prey on the vulnerability of the residents of Central America, where 18.8 million live in poverty. Honduras has become a key narco-trafficking hub because many of the country’s residents are in dire need of money, as 71.6% of the country’s 8.14 million live in poverty, according to the U.N. report on Human Development.

“Honduras is a strategic country because it has three borders – with Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala – and it has a Caribbean coastline,” said Adalberto Santana, a researcher with the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) and author of the book Drug trafficking in Latin America.

Santana added what makes the narcotics fight so difficult to win is that it involves more than just narco-traffickers. For example, in Peru, residents often work in coca leaf plantations because they need money to provide for their families.

“Drug trafficking is an economic problem,” he said. “The police cannot control the situation because it’s a problem that has to do with supply and demand.”

Hope agreed, adding countries must work together since narco-trafficking is “a threat to democratic institutions.”

Calderón stressed there’s only one way for the region to prevail in the fight against narco-trafficking and organized crime.

“We need to be better organized, both among our countries and as international agendas,” he said to close the meeting in Cancún. “In the face of organized crime there is no way but to operate in an equally organized way, on an international level.”

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