Gang violence is spreading throughout Latin America
ohn October 27 90 police officers, 22 vehicles and water cannons stood ready in a field on the outskirts of Santiago, the capital of Chile. They were not there to defend a strong protest. Instead, they were there to keep an eye on him narcofuneral: the burial of a young woman allegedly linked to drug traffickers. Such an event, which often ends with bullets being fired into the air by mourners, would once have been unthinkable in Chile, long considered one of the safest countries in Latin America. . But between May 2019 and September 2023, organizations held almost 2,000 such funerals, according to Gabriel Boric, the president. In September Mr. Boric sent a bill to Congress that intended to limit them.
The homicide map of Latin America is being redrawn. The region’s homicide rate has been falling since 2017, although countries such as Mexico and Brazil are still home to some of the cities with the highest homicide rates on Earth. But in previously safe countries murder rates are hitting record highs, including Ecuador, Costa Rica and Chile. It’s called the new narco network: a cocktail of drugs, guns and migration is fueling gang violence across the region.
Take Ecuador first. It has quickly descended into chaos. In 2018 the country was an Andean slum of 17m people. He sent out oil and fish. It had the fourth lowest homicide rate in Latin America, at 5.8 per 100,000 people. But this year that rate is expected to exceed 35 per 100,000 people. It is already higher than Mexico and Brazil (see chart). Criminal gangs kill with license, set off car bombs and hang dead bodies from bridges. In August a presidential candidate who was running on an anti-corruption platform was assassinated. The six Colombian hitmen were found hanged in their prison cells in October.
Cocaine is the main cause of Ecuador’s problems. For decades the country had been largely ignored by international drug traffickers. That changed in the late 2000s, when groups realized they could get even juicier signals by delivering hits further afield, to Europe and Australia. Partly as a result, gangs then changed their shipping methods: instead of packing it on planes or boats to the United States, coke was shipped inside container ships among legitimate cargo.
After Colombian ports tightened their security, criminals looked for other shipping routes. Ecuador’s poorly monitored ports became even more attractive after 2009, when leftist Rafael Correa, then president, dismantled the country’s defenses by closing an American naval base and , therefore, ending cooperation with the Navy. US Drug Enforcement Administration. Ecuadorian groups such as Los Choneros signed as transporters, moving coke for a Mexican gang and the Albanian mafia. By 2019 Ecuador had turned into a cocaine highway.
Locking down gangsters did not help them to strengthen their networks. Los Coneros thrived in the crowded prisons, recruiting heavily and launching attacks on their enemies. Targeted killing escalated into massacres, where dozens of prisoners were taken out and shot. In 2021 about 330 prisoners were murdered in Ecuador, the highest number in the world. That same year coke was Ecuador’s sixth largest export, worth nearly $1bn, or 0.9% of GDPaccording to InSight Crime, a research center.
Likewise, this year in Costa Rica they are expected to hit a record of 17 per 100,000 people, compared to 11 per 100,000 people three years ago. Cocaine is a big part of the problem there too. Production is rising in Colombia, where the highest amount of coca leaf has been harvested in recent years, translating into larger shipments arriving in Costa Rica, says Álvaro Ramos, former security minister.
However, coke is not the only cause of increased violence. In recent years there have been many murders about the domestic marijuana market. Illegal cannabis is big business in Costa Rica: 3% of residents say they use it every month, one of the highest consumption rates in Central America. Many groups prefer weed to coke. It’s hard to move the white stuff: it takes connections and corrupt officials (of which there aren’t many in Costa Rica). On the other hand, weed has few barriers to entry and can be sold anywhere.
The state is not equipped to stop these new groups from succeeding. Costa Rica abolished its army in 1949. Rodrigo Chaves, the president, blames past administrations and the judiciary for the situation. He says the country does not have enough police, the laws are outdated and the legal system is too soft on criminals.
The third location in this new narco network, Chile, is not a hot spot for murder. Last year the suicide rate reached a record high of 6.7 per 100,000 people. That is much lower than its neighbors, and close to the level in the United States, of 6.3. But as his narcofunerals prove, crime is getting much worse. More cocaine and strong cannabis are being imported than ever before, with cannabis seizures tripling between 2018 and 2021. Its ports have become targets for gun runners. Timber trade is also a problem. The copper industry, which accounts for nearly 11% of the country’s industry GDPdamaged by armed robbery.
Chile is one of the richest countries in the region. It also hosts half a million Venezuelan migrants fleeing the regime of Nicolás Maduro. That combination has attracted mafias such as Tren de Aragua, the largest gang in Venezuela. He is struggling to control Chile’s underworld, after building a human trafficking empire across South America. Shootings occur regularly in the port city of Iquique, as local gangs stop attacks by Venezuelans. Tren de Aragua cells run prostitution rings in several cities. About 40 accused members were jailed in one department last year. Dozens have been arrested in police raids this year.
As a result, the proportion of Chileans who say that immigration is bad has increased from 31% in December 2018 to 77% in April 2023, according to Cadem, a pollster. Another survey found that most people blame illegal immigration for the rise in crime. Ahead of regional elections next year, the government has increased its focus on security. After three police officers were killed in March, Mr. Boric promised an annual increase of 40% in the security budget and passed tougher penalties for crimes against the police. Despite this, many consider it too soft on crime.
What does this new narco network mean for the countries that were once among the success stories of Latin America? Many citizens vote with their feet. Last year, Ecuadoreans were the second largest nationality to cross Panama’s dangerous Darien gap on the way north.
Those who stay at home can turn to more drastic solutions. According to Latinobarómetro, a regional survey, fully 48% of Ecuadoreans, 31% of Chileans and 22% of Costa Ricans rank security as the biggest problem in their country, well above the regional average of 13%. Many Latin Americans admire the authoritarian president of El Salvador Nayib Bukele, who over the past year has locked 1.6% of the population in a gang crackdown and has an approval rating of 88 %, the highest in the region.
Politicians across Latin America are taking note. On October 15, Daniel Noboa, a 35-year-old right-winger, won the presidential elections in Ecuador. He has promised to use Mr. Bukele’s approach, and build floating prisons in the Pacific. Some doubt that will stop the gang problem there. But such unusual solutions are becoming more and more popular. Faced with increasingly powerful groups, many Latin Americans seem to believe that sacrificing civil rights is a price worth paying for security. ■