How COVID-19 Has Transformed Organized Crime and Narcotrafficking in the Northern Triangle, as told by Dr. Edmond Mulet and Luis Contreras
COVID-19, the highly contagious virus that has infected over 17 million people world wide, has transformed the way we work, live, and communicate. Almost every sector of the world has had to alter its operations in order to promote public health and safety. Two unlikely spheres that have been affected by the pandemic are those of organized crime and narcotrafficking. In terms of organized crime, the Northern Triangle has been plagued by a variety of criminal activities, such as gang activity, cyber crimes, smuggling, assault, rape, and robbery.
During the pandemic, gang leaders have taken advantage of leadership vacuums and public uncertainty by assuming the role of “protector” in their neighborhoods. In the hopes of using this “leadership” as leverage after the pandemic, gangs have distributed care packages with medical supplies and sustenance to citizens. On the sides of these packages, some gangs have printed portraits of their leaders to remind citizens that the gangs are the ones providing them with such care. Gangs have also stepped in by enforcing mandatory quarantines and curfews as well as aiding small businesses that are struggling to stay afloat.
In terms of narcotrafficking, increased border restrictions and limited air travel due to COVID-19 have made it difficult to circulate drugs nationally and internationally. With many land and air routes being risky or inaccessible, drug traffickers have sought out maritime routes. Also, material shortages in many Latin American countries, such as Colombia and Venezuela, have slowed the production of popular narcotics, namely cocaine and heroin.
After seeing these recent trends, I wanted to learn more about the history and evolution of organized crime and narcotrafficking in Latin America, so I turned to two of the leading experts in these fields. First, I interviewed Dr. Edmond Mulet, a Guatemalan journalist, lawyer, and diplomat. Dr. Mulet has been active in politics and human rights advocacy since 1976. After holding many esteemed positions in the Guatemalan government, such as Deputy to the Congress of the Republic of Guatemala, President of the Legislative Organism, Ambassador of Guatemala to the United States of America, and Guatemalan Ambassador to the European Union, he was tasked with heading the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti, an intervention to restore order in the country and spark economic and social development within it. In his interview, Dr. Mulet shared his experiences in Haiti and his expertise on organized crime in both Guatemala and Haiti.
Latina Republic: In 2006, 2007 and 2010 you served as the head of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti, what lessons did you learn from your experiences working in Haiti?
Edmond Mulet: My mandate from the UN Security Council was to go to pacify and stabilize Haiti, which had fallen into the hands of gangs and armed groups; the country was in a state of ungovernability due to gang violence and a lack of stable leadership in the government. There was no army, there was no police, and Haitian gangs had taken a hold over the country, through extortion, robbery, assault, rape, and terrorizing the population.
The situation in Haiti was tense because these gangs and these armed groups had already reduced to common crime. They had turned into highly organized, very well structured armed groups that used high-powered weapons, gears, and Molotov bombs. They had weapons of high potential, and they were employing them in broad daylight. Bandits were rampant in the dark, extorting people discreetly. The gangs put barricades on the roads, highways, and streets in the city. It was a much more organized structure than simple gangs that have been seen in other Latin American countries.
The Security Council, at the request of the United States, created the Blue Helmet Mission to help the Haitian government control the situation. I was given 15,000 troops, many of which came from Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Jordan, French-speaking African countries, and all Latin American countries; the diversity in the troops was seen as an act of continental solidarity in support of Haiti.
It is important to note that UN troops are voluntary soldiers that come from many countries around the world.
While patrolling the streets during the mission, we would pass through villages, communities, and neighborhoods in the capital, Port-au-Prince, or in other cities. When we entered with a patrol, we saw bandits had vigilantes monitoring the streets. However, we noticed that the vigilantes were not watching us, they were watching the population.
If they saw someone talking to us, smiling at us, or supporting our presence in that neighborhood, they would find that person after we finished our patrol and would line up his whole family in front of his house and shoot everyone.
These demonstrations served as reminders for the rest of the population to either refrain from collaboration or contact with us or to pay for it with their life. For example, in Cité Soleil, which is the most violent neighborhood in Port-Au-Prince, a Peruvian captain in my force told me that he was with his squad on patrol one day in one of the streets in Cité Soleil and found an extremely skinny boy aged 6 or 7 on the corner of the street. The Peruvian captain took water from his canteen and gave the boy water to drink.
He later told me that every 2 days his patrol passed through that route, he would always find the boy in that corner, so he began to bring him cookies, bread, and food. One day, he went with his platoon to look for the boy and found his body in the street corner. His stomach had opened and all his organs were spilled on the ground. This boy was a victim of a horrific murder just because he had accepted food and water from a Peruvian soldier. This was the level of cruelty that we had to face.
Another example was when we were doing patrols in some of the same neighborhoods on our Armored Personnel Carriers. On one of these patrols, we encountered a great trench in front of us, one so big that the APC could not move forward. There, they attacked us with Molotov bombs. I started the vehicle and led my soldiers out of the area. Many burned and died in these ambushes.
The President of the Republic of Haiti, René Préval, had taken office 2 weeks before I arrived on May 26, 2006 in Haiti. Unfortunately, his core base of support and political activists were the gang leaders that we had to fight. Préval was working with the gang leaders and letting them influence his decisions as President.
For that reason, I had problems communicating our mission with the president because he sometimes wouldn’t let me put a stop to the gang activity. Préval would say, “Please don’t go into this neighborhood, don’t touch this bandit, don’t go there.” It made my relationship with him tense at times because I had to abide by the recommendations and instructions that he gave me.
Another issue was that bandits had begun to derail entire school buses of children and ask their parents for ransoms. The children were kept in a warehouse until the parents paid the ransoms; only then were these young children released. It was difficult to manage this complicated situation due to the president’s deals with gang leaders because we could only take limited action against the bandits.
Sometimes, I had problems with the United Nations agencies, human rights agencies, Doctors Without Borders, and many humanitarian aid agencies that could not, according to their own regulations, be seen as part of offensive operations for military security. I needed their support in order to convince the people that if they gave up the weapons, stopped operating in this way, and helped us win popular support, they would have benefits in terms of food, services, and safety.
However, our luck began to change when the Norwegian government gave us $200,000 cash and said to us, “Buy what is necessary to provide social benefits as well as safety to the people. ” Our issue was that the armed groups, gangs, and bandits socially controlled the population by making the population dependent on them for resources and protection.
For example, they distributed sugar, oil, and flour to Haitian towns; they also had their own welfare operations that were used to increase control over the population.
However, with the help of the Norwegian government, we were able to establish soup kitchens and distribute food and assistance to reduce the communities’ ties to local gangs. Also, we created assistance programs that changed the nature of the war to a social as well as military one.
Our goal was not only to establish peace and security, but to win minds, and hearts because a purely military mission would not yield a lasting change. We also sought after the population’s stomachs because hunger was such a widespread issue. The social programs helped us a lot to overcome gang influence and to work locally with community leaders and religious orders as well.
When the gangs and bandits saw that we were starting to win the hearts and minds of the population, they became more violent, bombarding us with ambushes and attacks. The end of 2006 came, tensions were rising, and the president still was leaving us very little room to work.
On December 15, 2006, I privately met with Préval to tell him that he had to give me the power to act because these gangs were continuing to extort more people and businesses. Finally, the president gave me his approval to act on December 22. Shortly after that, we started to carry out our military operation accompanied by social stimulation. We carried out the operations at night, and we continued operations on computers. These intense missions continued through the new year.
One day, the president called me while we were on a mission to target a criminal who was wanted by French authorities for assassinating the French Consul General to Haiti. The president said, “We are at a crossroads because the neighborhood in which the criminal was hiding has asked for a 2-hour humanitarian pause so that women and children of that neighborhood can leave before your troops advance.”
After waiting two hours, we proceeded to the neighborhood to seek out the criminal. When we got to the center of the criminal’s operations, there was absolutely no one in sight. He and his cohorts had all dressed as women and fled the neighborhood. Not only that, but the criminal sought refuge at the National Palace, where the President lives. A week later, he escaped to the Domincan Republic. Fortunately, two years later, the French authorities found him there and prosecuted him.
On February 27 2007, my patrol and I reentered the neighborhoods of Cité Soleil and walked through the streets. It was one of the most exciting days of my life because when the people saw me, they got down on their knees and cried, thanking me for freeing them from terror, violence, kidnappings, rapes, and all that the bandits had done.
After 15 months, we had finally stabilized the country and put over 1,850 criminals in the penitentiary. Unfortunately, three years later, the earthquake came, and some of the criminals escaped and others died.
As for what I learned there, a primary lesson is that each conflict, each situation is completely different from others. Each country is characterized by distinct social and historical circumstances, and you have to know how to adapt to them in order to solve the unique problems it faces. The solution that we found in Haiti cannot be applied to other countries.
It is important to refrain from applying blanket solutions; instead, one must study the psychology, history, and circumstances of a country when drafting measures to implement within it.
Latina Republic: How do natural disasters or unique circumstances, like the pandemic, open a window of opportunity for gang activity and crime in general?
Edmond Mulet: During the pandemic in El Salvador and Guatemala, the gangs announced that they would suspend extortion charges. The gangs, taking note of the terrible effects Covid-19 has had on the world, thought that suspending the charges would be a way to help out. Since businesses are closing, many people have no income or work, so it would be difficult for many to support themselves and continue to finance the gangs through extortion payments.
Meanwhile, we have seen a different type of crime emerge during the pandemic: people who approach a store or supermarket and then assault a person, not only to steal money, but also to steal food and resources. Much of the crime that has emerged is neither organized nor gang crime, but people driven by necessity because the economic situation has had a terrible effect on the informal economy, which is economic activity that is not regulated by the state.
In Guatemala, 75% of the population makes up the informal economy and has been hit the hardest by the pandemic. In just four or five months, this very hard situation has already become almost unsustainable and has generated social tensions in some communities.
In Guatemala, people in the formal economy are paid a normal monthly salary. A portion of your salary is distributed once a month, and additional bonuses are given on Christmas and July 15. Because Guatemalans are going to be given their midyear bonuses soon, there will be an estimated 30% increase in the circulation of money and economic activity.
However, experts predict that this increased economic activity will, in turn, increase the unorganized robberies and assaults that I mentioned before.
We have also seen an increase in cyber crimes due to increased numbers of people working, shopping, and banking from home. There are groups that are stealing credit card numbers and attempting identity theft.
As for drug trafficking, it has not slowed down. The demand from the entire North American market has not slowed, and dealers have had to find new ways to fulfill it, with many of them turning to small planes to transport drugs to other countries and continents.
Recently, these air crafts have terrorized clandestine runways; almost every week, authorities discover a burned or captured aircraft containing drugs.
However, the army and police in charge of controlling the drug trafficking issue are using COVID-19 curfews and restrictions to combat narco trafficking. From 6:00 pm to 5:00 am, no one is allowed to circulate in the streets. There are army and police patrols in towns, cities, highways, and roads, monitoring the curfew.
Unfortunately, with rising numbers of police and military personnel as well as civilians testing positive for COVID-19, a lot of the force that was dedicated to drug control issues is now distracted with other more urgent activities.
Latina Republic: In your years of experience, what in your opinion, is at the heart of criminal activities in Central America? Why have the governments of the region not contained them?
Edmond Mulet: There are parallel groups inserted in the state dedicated, for example, to smuggling. Smuggling has been an illegal activity that the military or police have been involved in, and their involvement has had an effect on the national economy and budget of some states because the states do not have enough income to use taxes to fund police intervention.
As a result of the contraband, there are deficit budgets in terms of production, products, and, above all, imported products, such as vehicles, electrical appliances, food, and medicine. There are also structured groups that facilitate the parallel drug trafficking business.
In El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, there is great interest in having control of ports and customs, as well as maritime and land borders. Smuggling facilitates the transit of drugs across borders, and it is one of the biggest problems we have in our countries. Smuggling and narco trafficking are then often accompanied by violence, because competition for territories, smuggling disputes, and drug trafficking disputes can cause murders, homicides, and attacks.
Latina Republic: What kind of leadership is needed in Central America to end organized crime and promote human rights in the region? What will it take to get there?
Edmond Mulet: First of all, we need political will, that is, that political leaders know that important changes start in the executive branch, in Congress, and in the courts. The problem is that when the state is co-opted, it is infiltrated by these groups; for example, many of the judicial courts in Guatemala are totally at the service of gang leaders.
In Guatemala, there are now more narco-mayors and narco-deputies in the National Congress than ever before because they have gotten there thanks to the enormous amounts of money that they have received from gangs in exchange for privileges.
There are organized smuggling groups as well that have been linked with registered and contested judges in the government. These important positions are being filled by gang leaders, so it is imperative that the judicial system be rectified in order to reduce the prevalence of organized crime.
We also must create institutions that follow the true rule of law, institutions that do not currently exist in Guatemala. These are not easy problems to solve, and they depend a lot on the political will of our leaders. However, if we do not break this vicious cycle, our country has no future.
We cannot achieve political will solely through government programs, in a purely national project; we need the support of the international community, and of course, of the United States. The US has been most interested in creating conditions in these countries in the Northern Triangle that stimulate development, employment, work, good income, and confidence to invest in ourselves.
If we do not create these conditions, and invest in our own country, people will think about emigrating, leaving, because there is no opportunity. In Guatemala, a large majority of parents are saying to their children, “Go away, go from Guatemala, go work somewhere else, work abroad.”
When parents do not have confidence that their children have a future in their own country, it demonstrates the need for investment and development to preserve the future of the country.
Next, I had the pleasure of interviewing Luis Contreras, an international political consultant from El Salvador. Contreras is both a specialist in Police Tactical Interventions and expert in Security and Criminology; he also serves as President of PROSEDE Consulting. Contreras spoke to the evolution of gang activity in the Northern Triangle as well as how the pandemic has altered organized crime in the region.
Latina Republic: How have criminal activities and crime changed during the pandemic in Central America and the northern triangle?
Luis Contreras: The mobility restrictions that have been put into place as a result of the pandemic have definitely affected criminal activity. In El Salvador, in June 2019, the government reported an average homicidal violence rate of 57 per one hundred thousand inhabitants.
That is an interesting statistic because the World Health Organization considers there to be an epidemic of violence in countries that have 10 murders for every hundred thousand.
The government of Nayib Bukele has implemented a counter territorial security plan that, to date, has yielded quite optimal results.
In November and December of 2019, the president who had been elected to Guatemala, Alejandro Giamattei, came to a meeting with the Minister of Justice, Rogelio Rivas, to learn first-hand what the plan consisted of.
Due to COVID-19, in El Salvador, we already had fairly optimal figures such as in January when there were 36 murders per one hundred thousand inhabitants. Recently, the figures have decreased to 21 murders per one hundred thousand inhabitants.
There have always been low numbers of femicides, murders against women, but with the pandemic, most violent crimes have had a downward trend. Homicidal violence is also an issue in El Salvador; for example, we have worrying figures of 10-12 murders every day.
Latina Republic: Some gangs have taken on a “protector” role during the pandemic. Do you know if there has been any coordination between national or local governments and gang leaders in regulating citizen safety during the pandemic?
Luis Contreras: No, there is no concrete data nor are there formal agreements between gangs and government officials establishing this role. In the past, Mauricio Funes, the former president of El Salvador, closed an agreement between the government and the gangs.
In penal centers, where many ringleaders are detained, confined, and convicted, the ringleaders take charge by intimidating other inmates and trying to establish order. These deals made by the FMLN (Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front) aggravated the organized crime issue in our country.
Now, FMLN does not have strong electoral support, and the opposing party, ARENA (the Nationalist Republican Alliance), which is the other strongest party in terms of the government’s position, has accused FMLN of destabilizing political security because FMLN could never control crime in the country and instead caused the rate of criminal activity to increase.
The current plan to minimize organized crime is the counter-territorial plan. The first phase of the plan consists of deploying a police operative tactic that will target, identify, and select different areas of the country that have the highest incidence of crime.
After identifying these geographic areas, other phases will ensue, such as recovery of public spaces and reducing the situational presence of violence. In previous governments, this citizen and public security was never done because there was increased control of funds by those in charge.
The fact that the government can manipulate and implement the policies without interference from other organisms facilitates the state’s embezzlement of funds. Unfortunately, some civil servants who could help with increasing public security and other institutions such as health, education, opt for the path of corruption.
Latina Republic: Are gangs still demanding protection payments from businesses? If not, what will happen when the quarantine ends and the gangs return to collect their “fees with additional interest?”
Luis Contreras: These payments are colloquially called “teak,” and they are solicitations of money from businesses in order for criminals to obtain income and sustain a criminal operation.
Extortion has been as considerable a crime as homicidal violence, and it is a more difficult scourge to combat. For example, in January, El Salvador’s Attorney General’s office presented that it was going to prepare a quarterly plan to combat extortion, and it was going to articulate it systematically with the Ministry of Justice, headed by Rogelio Rivas who has been the most successful Minister of Security in El Salvador’s history.
In regards to extortion during the pandemic, what has changed is the government’s plan to tackle it. In the past, when the government would be called upon to intervene in a violent issue caused by extortion, it would go in without a defined plan or course of action to put a stop to it.
Now, however, even after gangs have regained territory as a result of the counter-territorial plan, police and military forces are assigned to the geographical sectors of the population most affected by crime. The government has provided these forces with the technology to track organized crime and gang activity as well as increased surveillance and more durable uniforms.
For example, there is a very successful plan that is for public schools in which gang members recruit young children on the marginal outskirts of El Salvador. These schools lack much lighting and a physical police presence to intimidate criminals. By gaining more control over surveillance, it is easier for the police to quickly intervene and arrest perpetrators.
Technology is becoming increasingly useful and important for public security as we have seen in London which is a world leader in surveillance technology. London has more than 80,000 cameras watching the movements of people, making it easier to catch criminals. In El Salvador, the city of Santa Tecla has developed a very good video surveillance system with the goal of increasing public safety.
Latina Republic: How can businesses protect themselves?
Luis Contreras: With respect to extortion, for example, the financier of the republic started a campaign to denounce extortion before the pandemic hit. If government institutions do not generate the trust to provide protection to people being extorted by criminals, the businessmen will not report the extortions.
In the past, what happened? Most businessmen chose to report extortion either out of fear or out of confidence in the institutions. Now, we are in a process of generating greater confidence in the government. In this process, we are purging judicial and police corruption, and this is a good step because we know that the institutions are not perfect but they are perfectible.
Latina Republic: Does the northern triangle have plans to eliminate crime after the pandemic?
Luis Contreras: That would be interesting, but I have not heard to date that the 3 countries agree on the level of the pandemic specifically. Guatemala and Honduras are being hit harder by Covid-19 than El Salvador, with Guatemala having 1,835 deaths. Honduras, likewise, is one of the countries with the highest mortality rates from COVID-19 with 1,259 deaths.
After Panama, Guatemala, and Honduras, El Salvador has the 4th highest mortality rate; I think we could actually have the 5th highest rate because Daniel Ortega’s Nicaraguan figures are not credible. I think public security will rise slightly in the Northern Triangle once the pandemic passes because countries that want optimal public security will steadily regain confidence in businessmen.
If a country like El Salvador maintains very low rates of violence, homicide, and extortion, foreign investment will increase in El Salvador. Local entrepreneurs are going to invest again without the fear of extortion or harm to their businesses. With that said, public security is the cornerstone of economic success and recovery.
When there is no security, the economy suffers because nobody wants to start a business in or invest in an area with a high rate of crime and violence. That is why it is important that governments invest in public security, health, and social programs. For example, Costa Rica is a country that has invested a lot in social programs because such investment manifests in lower crime rates and higher public security.
Therefore, if the governments of the Northern Triangle invest in social, cultural, and artistic activities, they may see a decrease in the rates of violence. After all, the more educated the man, the more educated the nation.
Featured Image: A Mexican drug cartel preparing care packages with the image of El Chapo on the side / Photo Courtesy: Getty Images
Zenia Grzebin | Wake Forest University
Zenia is a rising Junior at Wake Forest University who is pursuing majors in Politics and International Affairs & Spanish as well as a minor in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. Originally from Jacksonville, Florida, Zenia became interested in Latin American and Spanish Studies through her travels to Costa Rica and Spain. In the summer of 2019, she conducted research on international relations and Spanish domestic politics for La Asosiación Profesional de Sociología de Castilla y León. On campus, Zenia is active in organizations such as Project Pumpkin and HerCampus as well as a member of the Sigma Delta Pi Spanish Honor Society. She is looking forward to working with Latina Republic to amplify marginalized voices and learn more about issues affecting Latin America.