The assassination of Ecuadorian presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio one month ago underscores a growing threat to democracy throughout Latin America: the growing influence of criminal groups, and governments that seem unwilling or unable to address organized crime.
Organized crime’s power jeopardizes the region’s future and, as an important driver of migration to the United States, points to the border crisis deteriorating further before it improves.
Organized crime has had a presence in Latin America for decades, but it has dramatically increased its geographic footprint in recent years and has evolved to become more adaptable and innovative. Even as drug production and trafficking have increased, many criminal organizations have diversified into other activities such as extortion, gold mining and human trafficking. In some countries, once dominant criminal groups have splintered into smaller groups. And the lines between criminal organizations and ideologically oriented armed groups have become increasingly blurred.
This expansion of organized crime threatens Latin American democracy on several levels.
First, the failure of democratic governments to make progress against crime reinforces the belief that democracy is ill-suited to solving problems. This is seen most starkly in the 2023 edition of the Latinobarómetro public opinion survey, which finds that only 48% of Latin Americans prefer democracy to other systems of government (down from 63% in 2010), and that an increasing number are open to authoritarianism. Political turbulence in some countries has reduced governments’ focus on crime even further, undermining any possibility of consensus on anti-crime policies, and reducing coordination between governments, creating further opportunities for organized crime to exploit.
Criminal organizations are also eroding democracy through their extensive links with political elites in the region. Before he was assassinated, Villavicencio had denounced his country’s political class for becoming contaminated by organized crime, in one instance filing a complaint against 21 mayoral candidates with alleged links to crime groups. As organized crime has become more fragmented and expanded into new activities, it has sought new political alliances, which has been facilitated by the weakness of political parties.
In some countries, organized crime is also challenging democratic governance directly by intimidating officials or preventing governments from fulfilling basic functions.
In Colombia, criminal groups have expanded their territorial control, threatening or banishing uncooperative elected officials, appropriating public funds intended for infrastructure and other services, or restricting residents’ movement. The Ombudsman’s Office of Colombia recently warned that regional elections scheduled for Oct. 29 could be jeopardized by the expansion of criminal groups and their interference in the electoral process.
In Mexico, the cartels regularly exhibit their strength, increasingly challenging the government’s monopoly on violence. President López Obrador’s more frequent deployment of the military to fight cartels has not resulted in tangible gains for Mexicans who are subject to the cartels’ depredations.
According to a University of Chicago study, 13% of the population of Latin America now lives under a criminal governance system, in which organized crime either governs or co-governs a territory or population. The most extreme example is in Venezuela, where the Nicolás Maduro regime presides over a system in which favored criminal groups collaborate with the regime to help it maintain control and jointly exploit drug trafficking and illegal gold mining.
Criminality in the region is creating fertile ground for more authoritarian regimes. In El Salvador, President Nayib Bukele has subdued the country’s notorious street gangs through a program of mass incarceration and by maintaining a state of emergency since March 2022. He now has the highest approval rating of any leader in the region, is being copied in neighboring Honduras, and is inspiring like-minded leaders around the region. He also plans to run for reelection, even though El Salvador’s constitution prohibits presidential reelection.
As organized crime continues to evolve and expand, democratic leaders in the region should work to demonstrate that it is possible to combat organized crime within the context of robust democracy. This requires governments to maintain a long-term commitment to build law enforcement and justice systems that can withstand the corrupting influence of criminals, develop localized approaches that reflect the adaptable and fragmented nature of today’s organized crime, and cooperate with each other in fighting transnational organizations.
It also requires greater commitment and urgency from the United States. Latin America’s people need better options than the Venezuela and El Salvador models.