Latin American governments have implemented some of the swiftest measures in the world to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. El Salvador closed its borders to foreign travelers and imposed a national quarantine on March 12, a full week before the country registered its first case of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus. And on March 15, Peruvian President Martín Vizcarra suspended the constitutional right to free movement and deployed the military to enforce mandatory social distancing and arrest thousands who violated the restrictions. Although two of the region’s largest states—Brazil and Mexico—have resisted lockdowns and dismissed the danger that the virus poses, other major countries, such as Argentina, Chile, and Ecuador, were among the first in the Western Hemisphere to close schools and impose nationwide curfews.

These are laudable measures that, if pursued consistently, may save the lives of around 2.5 million Latin Americans. But their positive effects will not end there. Indeed, such steps could help governments across the region combat yet another transnational threat: organized crime.

Lockdowns and migratory restrictions are bad for illicit businesses. The closure of restaurants, bars, and nightclubs across much of the world may reduce, at least temporarily, the global demand for some illegal narcotics, as partygoers and recreational drug users stay at home. What’s more, U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to close the U.S.-Mexican border to all nonessential travel is liable to curb drug traffickers’ access to the world’s principal market for illegal narcotics, the United States.

Of course, cash-strapped criminal organizations hope to turn the situation to their advantage instead. Some have already moved to exploit the military and policing vulnerabilities that the pandemic has produced. In Colombia, where 60,000 soldiers and police have been diverted to enforce the national lockdown, several social leaders and human rights defenders have been killed. And in Mexico, the government has reported that March 2020 was the most violent month on record since record keeping began in 1997.

If Latin American governments neglect the risks posed by organized crime during their lockdowns, they may find themselves on the other side of this pandemic with a reduced capacity to deter and constrain the region’s criminals. If, on the other hand, these governments take proactive measures—such as increasing scrutiny at border crossings and improving surveillance in ungoverned spaces—they may deal a lasting blow to criminal organizations precisely when these groups are most exposed.

WHEN THE CAT'S AWAY, THE MICE WILL PLAY

The coronavirus crisis has jeopardized Latin American criminal groups’ main sources of income. Mexican black-market organizations are largely dependent on illicit supply chains originating in China for counterfeit luxury goods and precursor chemicals used in the production of fentanyl and methamphetamines. Cartels and guerrillas in South America are similarly dependent on border-crossing drug smugglers and gunrunners for the tools of their trade.

Deprived of their lucrative contraband, criminal organizations across the region will increasingly turn to human smuggling, cybercrime, kidnapping, and extortion to refill their coffers. In Central America, the sealing of borders and the militarization of border checkpoints have already pushed despairing migrants to pay a $200 premium to smugglers and gangs for “safe” passage from Honduras and El Salvador to Guatemala via informal border crossings.

At the recently shut, 1,378-mile-long border that separates Colombia and Venezuela, Venezuelan refugees fleeing their country’s enduring political crisis and economic collapse are finding their usual exit routes now closed. A 2020 report by the Pares Foundation notes that at least 28 armed groups operate along the border and trade in cocaine, weapons, illegally mined gold, and contraband gasoline. These outfits may repurpose their trochasor illegal crossing points—to smuggle Venezuelans into Colombia.

Criminal organizations will increasingly turn to human smuggling, cybercrime, and extortion to refill their coffers.

The severe measures imposed across the region to combat the coronavirus may also encourage violent actors to make a power grab. The risk is especially acute in Colombia, where guerrilla and paramilitary groups complicate the COVID-19 response of President Iván Duque. A coalition of more than 50 civil society organizations has urged both the Colombian government and illegal armed actors operating in the territory to cease hostilities as the country grapples with a growing number of coronavirus infections. At least one guerrilla group has announced that it will heed the call for the month of April.

Brazil’s organized criminals have addressed the public health problem far more directly. In Rio de Janeiro’s slums, drug gangs are attempting to supplant the state by enforcing social-distancing measures that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has refused to adopt. In addition to distributing soap and hand sanitizer, the groups have imposed strict curfews on residents and threatened to punish violators in an effort to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. A local outbreak would be disastrous for the gangs’ bottom line, which depends on local drug sales and extortion.

In San Salvador, by contrast, some cells of Central America’s notorious 18th Street Gang initially defied the government’s instructions by ensuring the continued operation of the city’s markets, which employ 42 percent of Salvadorans in the informal economy nationwide and provide a steady stream of revenue to local protection rackets. But they eventually acquiesced to the public health measures and are now enforcing the government’s 30-day lockdown at the point of a pistol and even suspending their extortion activities in some neighborhoods.

Although the gangs in these countries have responded differently to the virus, all are defying state authority. Their illicit activities may continue or increase as some groups—seeing a potentially disastrous recession headed their way—attempt to make last-minute profits before the markets, both legal and illegal, close. But many of these organizations need not worry—time is on their side.

A sustained economic downturn would be sure to fuel gang and cartel recruitment across Latin America, as the region’s growing young population struggles to put food on the table for their families. The last recession reduced employment levels and remittances, setting off a crime wave in such countries as Mexico and Honduras. This recession could similarly push increasing numbers of Latin Americans into the criminal workforce.

A GOLDEN OPPORTUNITY

Latin American governments should take proactive steps to fight organized crime during this global crisis. The pandemic has provided authorities in the region, together with their counterparts in the United States, a golden opportunity to zero in on a problem that might now be easier to isolate and address.

National borders will remain closed across much of the hemisphere in the coming weeks, but the region’s governments must continue cooperating with one another to disrupt transnational criminal activity. In ordinary times, smugglers hide in plain sight, masking their movements amid the sheer volume of legitimate commercial traffic. The precipitous reduction in air traffic and boating during the pandemic should assist in the detection of suspicious flights and vessels.

To capitalize on the decrease, customs authorities in Central and South America should impose rigid inspections of freight trailers at points of entry to curtail the flow of illicit goods. The United States can assist these efforts by scrutinizing southbound vehicles to help prevent firearms from falling into the hands of criminals. After all, a majority of crimes south of the border are committed with guns initially purchased in the United States.

Latin American governments should take proactive steps to fight organized crime during this global crisis.

Latin American police forces, tasked with enforcing quarantines and curfews, should also take advantage of their increased presence in neighborhoods to gain valuable data about community crime. What’s more, the region’s governments should follow the example of Argentina, which has repurposed vehicles and properties seized from drug traffickers to transport and house COVID-19 patients.  

In these extraordinary times, resource limitations have hamstrung even the world’s wealthiest nations. Even so, the United States should do more to help its struggling partners in the hemisphere confront the pandemic and criminality by restoring robust humanitarian and security aid, especially to Central America, a region that only recently has started receiving U.S. development assistance, after a one-year freeze.

The United States should also encourage U.S. medical equipment and manufacturing firms based in Latin America to make some critical medical equipment available for sale to countries south of the border, especially as companies that benefit from lower manufacturing costs downrange retool their factories to produce more respirators and ventilators. Mexico, a country that is expected to have some 700,000 potentially lethal COVID-19 cases, has around 2,500 ventilators in the entire country. A humanitarian disaster in Mexico would also spell catastrophe for the United States, as increasing crime drives more Mexicans and Central Americans to seek opportunity and refuge in the more prosperous country to the north. Moreover, providing Latin American partners with essential equipment would not only save lives but also boost the capacity and legitimacy of regional governments and revitalize U.S. soft power in a region where China is making considerable inroads.

The coronavirus has not only the United States and its partners in Latin America but also organized criminal networks scrambling to return to business as usual. Those who are flexible, adaptable, and resilient—whether they are governments or drug cartels—will prevail. If the region’s governments forfeit this opportunity, the hemisphere’s most dangerous criminals will likely remain at least one step ahead of them.

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