Latin America is widely known to be home to some of the most powerful criminal organizations in the world, but the region’s criminal ecosystem is dominated by state-embedded actors, many of whom protect and profit from illicit economies.

When former Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández’s name came up in the March 2021 US trial of notorious drug trafficker Geovanny Fuentes, few were surprised. The prosecutor described the Central American country as a ‘narco-state’, explaining how cartels had infiltrated ‘police, military and political power’. Their influence extended to ‘mayors, congressmen, military generals and police chiefs, even the current president’.

The same month also saw the sentencing (to life in prison) of Hernández’s brother (and former congressman), Antonio ‘Tony’ Hernández on drug trafficking charges. Hernández was found guilty of aiding the smuggling of 185 tonnes of cocaine from Colombia into the US, sometimes in collaboration with Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán’s Sinaloa Cartel.

While the former Honduran president continues to deny any wrongdoing, he now faces the prospect of potential extradition to the US after his party lost the November 2021 general election, stripping Hernández of the immunity from prosecution he enjoyed as president.

The jury is still out as to whether he will ever be extradited, but the fact that a president was linked to drug trafficking in a US court could be a tipping point in the way countries fight state-embedded crime and the lengths they are prepared to go to.

A story of state and crime

During the Fuentes trial, US prosecutors argued that, in Honduras, the distinction between state institutions and criminal organizations is, at best, hazy and, at worse, non-existent. Analysts monitoring political and criminal dynamics in the Central American country say the links between crime organizations and political elites run deep, with many high-ranking public servants protecting (and profiting from) illicit economies.

The story of state involvement in criminality is a familiar one in this region. Although Latin America is home to some of the most powerful transnational crime organizations in the world, it is state actors who actually dominate the criminal landscape – a finding highlighted by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime (GI-TOC)’s Global Organized Crime Index 2021. State actors facilitate illicit markets not only by protecting them and turning a blind eye, but also by rejecting measures that, if effectively implemented, could strengthen their country’s capacity to fight organized crime. These include robust accountability mechanisms, crime prevention and victim support programmes, and good governance.

Examples of Latin American state actors fuelling or enabling illicit activity are legion, from endemic low-level corruption (such as police officers facilitating drug trafficking in Argentina) to the high-level regional graft uncovered in the Odebrecht scandal. Across the region, the illegal trade in flora and fauna is rising, often aided by corrupt officials. In Brazil, for example, authorities issued fewer fines in 2020, even though deforestation soared to a 12-year high. In Venezuela – ranked among the highest countries for criminality and lowest for resilience in the Organized Crime Index – both low- and high-ranking public officials have been accused of direct involvement in crimes, including contraband, cocaine smuggling, money laundering, illegal exploitation of natural resources, exchange rate manipulation and a catalogue of human rights violations. Like Honduras’s Hernández, the Venezuelan president, Nicolás Maduro, has also been accused of aiding drug trafficking.

The scale of corruption and state involvement in crime has led some to label Venezuela a ‘mafia state’. Ronna Risquez, an investigative journalist, assessed the current situation as the result of the dismantling of democratic institutions: ‘In Venezuela,’ she said, ‘it is no longer possible to tell state and government apart.’ This, in turn, has created an environment of impunity in which criminal organizations can flourish, with investigations into corruption and crime nearly non-existent. 

An intractable problem, yet reason for hope

There is broad agreement that to tackle organized crime effectively, more effort must be made to dismantle the connection between state and crime, but achieving this will require overcoming a number of steep challenges. Firstly, criminal connections with the state are becoming increasingly entrenched and difficult to undo. In the most serious instances, where organized crime actors capture control of the state apparatus, the ability of law enforcement and justice institutions to hold criminals to account is critically undermined (as is the case in Venezuela).

Secondly, but closely linked, the political will to dismantle these connections is still largely lacking in many parts of the region. Indeed, political actors have often been antipathic to such initiatives, and ground-breaking attempts to tackle impunity and corruption across Central America have been shut down as soon as they became too uncomfortable for those in power. Despite their many achievements, initiatives such as the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala and the Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption in Honduras have faced hostility from some government actors and were not given the opportunity to complete their work. This antagonism towards those engaged in fighting corruption and impunity and combating organized crime is most starkly illustrated by the huge numbers of assassinations of civil society actors. Latin America is the most dangerous region in the world for human rights activists, with dozens killed in 2019 and 2020.

There is still some reason for hope, however. Latin America is host to hundreds of thousands of civil society organizations, journalists, lawyers and activists fighting to turn the tables on crime, violence and elite corruption. Their collective efforts have been identified as one of the most important sources of resilience against illicit economies: South America scores higher than the global average of 4.88 in the Organized Crime Index’s ‘non-state actor’ resilience indicator, with a regional score of 5.96. Central American countries such as Mexico, Guatemala, Costa Rica and Panama also rank higher than the global average in the same indicator. These civil society groups need to be supported, protected and encouraged, particularly when no one else is shining a light on the abuse of power by the region’s political elites. Their determination and tenacity in the face of extreme danger make such activists the region’s brightest hope and best chance of a future less plagued by crime.

But they cannot do it alone. Bringing state actors suspected of involvement in organized crime to justice is a powerful way of sending a strong message to others that these types of crimes will not go unpunished. While the future of the Hernández case is hard to predict, it may well become a game changer.

This analysis is part of the GI-TOC’s series of articles delving into the results of the Global Organized Crime Index 2021. The series explores the Index’s findings and their effects on policymaking, anti-organized crime measures and analyses from a thematic or regional perspective.

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