The 10 Largest Criminal Groups in Latin America

According to a UN study, the Latin American and Caribbean regions account for 30% of the world’s intentional homicides. That means that roughly every third victim of homicide in the world is killed in Latin America. It’s a chilling thought that could strike fear into just about anyone foraying into the region whether for business or a quick vacation. This is even more concerning when one considers that Brazil, where the world will be converging for the World Cup and the Summer Olympic games, accounts for 30% of these homicides; meaning every tenth homicide in the world happens in Brazil. Homicides, kidnappings, extortions, thefts, assaults – the list of daily crimes goes on. One of the issues brought to light during the current Venezuelan protests is the surreal level of crime in the country, about a fifth of which is reportedly committed by the national police. Street gangs have left Central American countries such as Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala in a quagmire of fear and insecurity. Manuel Noriega’s narcokleptocracy has left Panama with a legacy as an international transshipment point for drugs that the country is still struggling to overcome. In Colombia, a veritable swarm of drug lords has stepped up in an attempt to fill the colossal shoes of Pablo Escobar and his Medellín Cartel after the fall of the major cartel in 1993. The recent capture of the head of the Sinaloa Cartel, Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman, has led many to speculate on what impact this will have on the illegal drug trade: many believe that as long as there is a market for illegal drugs, one drug lord will merely be replaced by another. The Mexican Drug War has claimed thousands of lives, both belligerent and civilian, with no foreseeable end any time soon. Crime and violence, evidently, are prominent issues in Latin America. These issues can be crippling, seeping into the very fiber of the region’s socio-economic condition. Different leaders have attempted varied approaches to stall the spread and pre-eminence of crime throughout their respective countries. Recent Mexican rhetoric has espoused the possibility of legalizing drugs to curb the strength of the cartels and end the raging drug war that has taken a massive toll on the Mexican population. Regional and indeed international policy-makers are eagerly waiting to see the effect Uruguay’s recent legalization of marijuana will have on national levels of crime and violence. Anti-legalization supporters argue that taking drug revenue away from cartels and criminal organizations will lead to an increase in other organised crime enterprises. Whether a solution can be found or not, the organised crime factions in Latin America and the Caribbean represent a massive danger throughout the region and are a real part of everyday life for millions of people. Below we've listed of some of the largest, most well-established and long-standing criminal organizations contributing to the unusually high levels of violent crime throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. A warning; the descriptions of some of these groups' activities are unavoidably graphic.

10 Los Rastrojos (Established 2004)

First formed in 2004, the Colombian-based Rastrojos military group started as part of the Norte Del Valle cartel following armed conflicts in rural Colombia. Believed to have more than 1500 members, the Rastrojos group is primarily funded through drug trafficking and the rebel group funding tactic du jour – illegal gold mining. Their operations spread from Ecuador and Venezuela, all the way up through Central America to Mexico, and eventually to the United States. In 2012, the Rastrojos were found responsible for the massacre of 10 people outside the Colombian city of Bogota. Officials can find no motive for the attacks as the individuals who were attacked had no immediate connection to any paramilitary group in the region. Despite the strength of the group, many of the Rastrojos leaders were caught following the attack and Colombian military officials are confident that they will soon neutralize the cartel.

9 Los Urabeños (Established 2001)

In direct competition with the Rastrojos are Los Urabeños – a Colombian cartel operating out of the city of Uraba. The cartel is thought to have upwards of 1000 members since the group was established in 2001. Los Urabeños and Los Rastrojos have been locked in a drug war since 2011 while they both attempt to carve out their dominance in the Medellín drug trade – Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar’s old stomping ground. As you might expect, Los Urabeños are primarily financed through drug trafficking in the Colombian provinces of Antioquia, Chocó, La Guajira, Cesar, Santander, Valle del Cauca, and Cordoba. In early 2012, one of the leaders of Los Urabeños was shot dead while in a firefight with police in the Colombian province of Choco. Juan Dios Usuga, who is believed to be one of the main leaders of the gang, was killed during a police operation wherein officials attempted to arrest him at his ranch. Despite this blow to the Colombian gang’s leadership, Usuga’s brother Dario Antonio is believed to have assumed complete control of the gang.

8 Los Zetas (Established 1999)

Los Zetas are a Mexican drug cartel that has been making headlines in recent years as a participant in the Mexican Drug War currently gripping the country. Established in 1999, Los Zetas started out as the militia for the Gulf Cartel and the organisation has grown to be one of the most powerful and organized groups in the region. Their crimes go beyond murders, with an emphasis on fear tactics such as bombings, beheadings, kidnappings, ransom videos, and military grade weaponry. The group primarily operates through many disputed regions in Mexico as they transport drugs from Central America – primarily Guatemala – up to the United States. Los Zetas are most famous for having cranked up the level of violence in the Mexican Drug war, with analysts saying that they are mostly responsible for the “new dynamic to the violence in Mexico”. Despite the capture of their leader, Miguel Treviño Morales, the group’s strength is not believed to be compromised and they are expected to continue operations with a new leader.

7 Primeiro Comando da Capital (Established 1993)

The youngest Brazilian entry is the Primeiro Comando da Capital PCC  – or the First Command of the Capital – which is considered by some to be the largest criminal organization in Brazil. Boasting a membership of over 19,000, the PCC broke off from the other largest criminal organization in Brazil, the Comando Vermelho, in 1993 and swiftly took control of Sao Paolo. The group initially began with a mission to “improve prison conditions and prisoner’s rights” but fell into traditional gang activities soon afterwards. The group is primarily involved with drug trafficking but have been known to engage in bank robberies, extortion and kidnapping, and are currently locked in a massive war with Brazilian police for control of the infamous favelas (or slums). Police have turned up their efforts to control gangs like this in anticipation of this summer’s World Cup and the 2016 summer Olympics.

6 Cartel de Sinaloa (Established 1989)

Cártel de Sinaloa is unique in the fact that it is an organization largely comprised of different drug cartels consolidated under a single organization. Formally established in 1989, the cartel is an “alliance of some of Mexico’s top capos” and until recently was under command of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman before his capture this past February. The cartel’s operations seep into almost every corner of the Mexican region, and extend beyond its borders all the way to Buenos Aires, Argentina. Recent raids in the Philippines have revealed that the Sinaloa cartel has established operations in East Asia following the arrest of three Sinaloa Cartel officials. As expected, the Cartel de Sinaloa is mainly a drug trafficking organization but their efforts to protect themselves from persecution have made them deftly talented at “corrupting portions of the federal police and military to maintain the upper hand against its rivals”.  El Chapo’s recent arrest has already produced reports that he has been replaced by Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, a high ranking Sinaloa member.

5 Mara Salvatrucha (Established 1980)

Established in the early 1980’s, the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) – literally, the 'Salvadoran Gang' - are a massive and violent street gang who carry out “murders, assaults... robberies, and underground prostitution rings”. The gang has no modus operandi or formal hierarchy - unlike many of the groups on this list. No stated goal or formal hierarchy means that there is no direct way to combat their operations or attempt to dismantle the group. The gang’s roots can be traced back to the streets of Los Angeles, but the majority of the gang members are Salvadorian and Guatemalan by ethnicity. Stretching through much of Central America, the MS-13 have stretched as far north as the United States and even Canada. Insight Crimes states that their “activities have helped make the Northern Triangle – Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras – the most violent place in the world that is not at war”. Recently, the US Department of the Treasury registered the MS-13 as a full-fledged “transnational criminal organization” which made history by being the first street gang to receive such a designation.

4 Comando Vermelho (1979)

Thought to be “Brazil’s oldest and largest criminal group,” the Comando Vermelho (CV) – Red Command – is the preeminent gang in the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro. Not unlike the PCC, the CV started out as a group to protect prison members, but fell into muggings, bank robberies, and drug trafficking. The CV has been linked to Colombian drug cartels in their efforts to maintain drug revenue and continue their operations throughout the country and the region. In 2012, one of the leaders of the CV – Osmar Jesus Chavez – was killed in Paraguay during a shootout with rival gang members. Reports indicate that two assassins were sent into a bar while Chavez played pool and executed him on the bar floor. According to Brazilian officials, the border with Paraguay and Argentina – known as the Tri-Border Region – lacks effective monitoring from either country which results in a safe haven for many gang members from the region. As is the tradition, Chavez has already been replaced by another commander to maintain the group’s operations.

3 Cartel de Juarez (Established 1970)

Operating out of the Northern Mexican provinces and neighbouring regions in the United States, the Juarez Cartel has been in operation since the early 1970s and has had a turgid war with the Sinaloa Cartel for control of the region. On top of drug trafficking, the gang has been known for people smuggling, money laundering, bribery, kidnappings, racketeering, arms trafficking, and the fear-instilling practice of decapitating rivals and dumping their corpses in public places. Reports have recently indicated that there is a waning strength in the Cartel de Juarez, but the group’s strength and connections run deep. Their major ally is the Colombian group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), who represent some of their largest suppliers of drugs from South America. The group also controls much of the police force and prominent politicians. These are only some of the advantages that the group has from being one of the oldest criminal organizations in the country with the highest number of connections.

2 Mara-18 (Established 1960)

Mara-18, M-18, Barrio 18, Calle 18 – the Mara 18 operates under a vast array of pseudonyms and different titles, but their 50-year long operation is in the process of rebranding. Like its rival, the MS-13, the Mara 18 started life as a street gang in Los Angeles and spread both Northward and Southward from there on. Thought to have more than 30, 000 members, the M-18 boasts some of the largest membership numbers in the world and controls much of Central America. Much of the gang’s operations have converged on Honduras, which was recently cited as the most dangerous city in the world, again. Drug trafficking provides much of the gang’s revenue, but they have been known to engage in much more such as theft, murder, extortion, kidnapping, assault, illegal gambling, people smuggling, and document forging. The different cliques and cells within the group make it difficult to outline a formal hierarchy which – again – makes it difficult for authorities to combat the group as an organization.

1 Cartel del Golfo (Established 1930)

The granddaddy of Mexican drug cartels, the Cartel del Golfo, has been around since the early 1930’s – which means they've outlived many American mafia groups. With age, though, the Cartel has begun to lose territory to younger and more dynamic cartels – falling by the wayside while gangs like the Sinaloa Cartel and Los Zetas engage in massive warfare. Nonetheless, the group is still cunning and has trimmed down its involvement to produce some of the largest gains. The Cartel Del Golfo mostly operates in drug trafficking within Mexico’s eastern states and the Southern United States, but is “known to outsource other activities…to local ‘enforcer’ gangs”. Most notably, the Cartel del Golfo was linked with Los Zetas before they broke off to form their own independent operation, sparking a four-year war between the two organizations.

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