Where the drug lords are kings
In large parts of Latin America, the cartels are the real power
ISABEL VINCENT | Feb 6, 2007 | 20:36:21
Latin Americans used to pride themselves on the fact that the Islamist terrorism playing havoc with the security of major urban centres in North America and Europe never really took hold in the Americas. But in recent months, they have been held hostage by terrorism of a different sort as urban drug gangs, enraged by police crackdowns on their activities, have effectively turned some large urban areas into mini war zones.
In the week before Rio de Janeiro's legendary New Year's Eve celebrations, 19 people died in the city after several buses were torched in the suburbs and drug gangs lobbed grenades and opened fire with automatic weapons on 12 police stations throughout the city. In one incident, seven passengers were burnt to death when gunmen acting on the orders of the drug gangs set their bus ablaze. And last May, an estimated 200 people died in São Paulo when drug lords belonging to a group called the First Command of the Capital(PCC)issued orders from their prison cells for a wave of violence throughout the city. Urban transport ground to a halt, and many in that city of nearly 12 million people refused to go out until the violence stopped.
Days after the most recent violence in Rio, Sérgio Cabral, the newly elected state governor of Rio de Janeiro, called upon the country's president to deploy a 7,000-strong national security force in order to combat drug violence in the country. It was the third time authorities in Rio had called on the force since it was created in 2004. In Rio, during the first week of the New Year, military police with tanks mobilized at some of the most violent favelas, or shantytowns, in the city, which are the domains of some of Latin America's most powerful drug gangs. "This barbarity that happened in Rio de Janeiro can't be treated like common crime," said Brazilian President Luis Inácio Lula da Silva, who took up his second term of office on Jan. 1. "It's terrorism, and must be dealt with by the strong hand of the Brazilian state."
But it's unclear whether the strong hand of any state in Latin America is winning the multi-billion-dollar drug war. In Mexico, one of the first acts of new President Felipe Calderón was to dispatch in December thousands of troops into areas along the Mexican-U.S. border to destroy poppy and marijuana plantations. He also sent troops to police an escalating turf battle between powerful drug cartels near the resort town of Acapulco. Over the last two years, the Sinaloa cartel, based in the northern Mexican state of the same name, and the Nuevo Laredo-based Gulf cartel, have been fighting each other to gain control of the cocaine trade in the region. Last year, drug-related violence in Mexico left more than 2,500 dead.
Despite the recent crackdown in Mexico, that country's cartels are emerging as among the most dominant in Latin America. They are making inroads into Andean countries, such as Peru, the world's second-largest producer of coca after Colombia. Coca leaves, which are grown by peasant farmers throughout the Andean region, are the raw material in the manufacture of cocaine. Authorities say that Mexican cartels are now cutting their own deals directly with coca producers in Bolivia, Peru and even Colombia, where Colombian traffickers used to dominate the manufacture and trade of cocaine in the region. Colombia lost much of its dominance after authorities gunned down Medellin cartel chief Pablo Escobar in 1993. A few years later, Colombian authorities practically wiped out the once powerful Cali cartel.
In Brazil, which the U.S. State Department has called a major transshipment point for cocaine to Europe and the Middle East, more than 15 tonnes of cocaine was seized by police in 2005, double the amount confiscated in 2004, the last years for which such statistics were available. The country, which shares an 8,000-km border with Bolivia, Peru and Colombia(mostly in the difficult-to-police Amazon region), has become a focal point of operations by both regional and international authorities. The crackdown has been focused on the Amazon as well as the porous border with Paraguay in the south of the country. Last September, police in Paraguay uncovered an arms cache of 600 automatic weapons and 8,000 cartridges, which was destined for the PCC in São Paulo. Paraguay is often used as a staging post for planes carrying cocaine from the Andean region to Brazil. A great deal of the cocaine goes through Paraguay to São Paulo and is shipped through the nearby port of Santos. In order to crack down on this activity, Brazilian legislators in 2004 granted authorities the right to shoot down small aircraft that refuse to identify themselves.
But with escalating urban terrorism directed by drug gangs, Latin American authorities have their work cut out for them. "Ninety per cent of all crime today has drugs at the root," says Marina Maggessi, a former chief inspector of the Rio government's Drug Repression Centre. Many of the drug gangs have even emerged as parallel power structures, ruling urban shantytowns throughout the region. In Brazil, drug trafficking gangs like to install themselves as the law in impoverished areas, often setting up their own forms of justice for crimes committed within the community, in order to keep the police out.
In Rio de Janeiro, turf wars among leaders of the three major drugs gangs -- the Red Command, the Third Command and Friends of Friends -- have turned the city into one of the world's most violent. The homicide rate in Rio is around 50 per 100,000 population, compared to eight per 100,000 in New York City and three per 100,000 in London. In Brazil, most of the drug trafficking gangs have direct ties to Colombia's Revolutionary Armed Forces(FARC)guerrillas, who supply them with both drugs and weapons.(Authorities believe that, in Venezuela, President Hugo Chávez turns a blind eye to trafficking by FARC guerrillas, 50 of whom were indicted last year by the U.S. on trafficking charges.)
Last week, the trial of prominent FARC member Nayibe Rojas began in Washington, D.C. U.S. prosecutors are hoping to prove that she is responsible for smuggling hundreds of tonnes of cocaine into the United States, and that FARC, which has waged a 40-year insurgency against the Colombian government, has morphed into Colombia's most powerful drug cartel.
In 2001, the capture of Brazilian drug kingpin Luiz Fernando da Costa(known by his underworld name Freddy Seashore)in Colombia revealed strong links between FARC and drug cartels in Brazil, especially his own Red Command. Imprisoned in Brazil, Freddy Seashore still ran the drug trade in Rio from his prison cell. For drug lords, it is all too easy to reach out from prison: in São Paulo last May, the violence was orchestrated by jailed drug mafiosi who used cellphones smuggled into their jail cells to direct the violence.
During that wave of brutality, agents of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency in São Paulo helped capture "Don" Pablo Rayo-Montano, Colombia's most powerful drug trafficker, who had been on the run from Colombian authorities for more than a decade. Authorities seized three islands off the coast of Panama that he owned, as well as more than US$70 million in assets around the world belonging to him and his family.
"When is this violence going to end?" asked one Rio resident, Ivan Cardoso, as he prepared to leave his apartment building in Copacabana one recent morning. It's a good question, and one that could be applied to the entire region as authorities try to assert their power over the drug gangs. In most places, though, that will probably mean that tanks and combat troops in camouflage will be a familiar sight on city streets.
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