Strategic Overview of Latin America: Identifying New Convergence Centers, Forgotten Territories, and Vital Hubs for Transnational Organized Crime

This book outlines a number of critical strategic challenges in Latin America for U.S. policymakers, which were directly identified in the December 2017 National Security Strategy. However, despite this recognition, these issues are seldom featured in policy discussions about the region. Through the framework of the convergence paradigm, which contends that multiple criminal/ terrorist groups work collaboratively when such cooperation is mutually convenient, we consider a number of territories, key commodities, and new money-laundering methodologies that have allowed transnational organized crime (TOC) networks to flourish in seemingly marginal regions of the hemisphere.

Long considered to be a critical challenge in Latin America, regional TOC groups, often under the direct protection of state actors, are able to adapt and thrive when policymakers do not understand the evolution of their operations, recognize the roles criminalized states often play, or develop innovative tools to combat TOC adaptations. Through examination of these evolving challenges, this analysis seeks to raise awareness among policymakers and to demonstrate how relatively few strategically targeted, well-placed resources can curb the financial and territorial reach of TOC groups. Furthermore, the analysis shows that continuing neglect of these challenges can enable the growth of criminalized, anti-U.S. regional powers, and hamper the ability of key U.S. allies to promote the rule of law and democratic growth throughout the region.

This analysis begins with a study of convergence in the illicit gold trade, drawing on fieldwork in Puerto Maldonado, Peru. It then considers three countries—Paraguay, Bolivia, and Nicaragua—that receive little attention from policymakers but are key players in the emerging drug trafficking, gold trade, money-laundering, and extra-regional illicit networks in Latin America. The discussion of both Bolivia and Paraguay features a brief study of the activities of the Primeiro Comando da Capital (First Command of the Capital), based in Brazil but rapidly expanding its operations across South and Central America. Despite being one of the largest and fastest-growing criminal gangs in the hemisphere, it is seldom viewed as an important consideration for regional trends. Finally, an overview of the Ramiro Network, a massive regional state-sponsored money-laundering structure based on fictitious oil sales, highlights a key convergence point for TOC activity in El Salvador, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Colombia— including the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia or, FARC), FARC “dissidents,” and Russia.

Many trend lines in Latin America are worrisome, and the actors discussed here are directly tied to the more visible crisis in Venezuela and the growing threat in Colombia. Ties between the FARC secretariat in Colombia—recently demobilized after a historic December 2016 peace agreement—and FARC dissident structures that remain engaged in cocaine trafficking and other illicit activities are now clearly documented and demand serious responses in order to ensure the continued security of Colombia, a close U.S. regional ally. Leaving the actors in these new regions of convergence to grow unchecked presents a serious security risk to the United States and the region.