Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Criminal Organizations Often Control Territory

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A few examples of areas in Latin America that governments don’t reach. Click on map for more details.

This article is adapted from AQ’s special report on transnational organized crime.

Organized crime and paramilitary groups effectively control large areas in Latin America, taking advantage of governments’ insufficient resources, geographic difficulties or lax policies.

Their territory often shifts. But in places where the state is largely absent, criminals act as parallel powers, dictating economic, labor and security norms. The areas indicated here are not an exhaustive list, but are examples of where criminal groups exercise control.

Click locations on the map to learn more.


“Golden Triangle”

This mountainous region located in the states of Chihuahua, Sinaloa and Durango is the stronghold for the Sinaloa Cartel, and was the hiding place for many years for the boss known as “El Chapo.” It’s one of the country’s main areas for growing marijuana and opium poppies. In February 2020 AMLO announced agricultural investment and infrastructure projects to connect the isolated communities of the triangle.

Colombia-Panama border

Darien Gap

This dense stretch of jungle connects Colombia and Panama. Many human trafficking networks operate in this area, also transporting people trying to reach the United States through Central America. It is the only incomplete section of the Pan-American Highway. Drug smuggling also occurs along this route.

Colombia-Ecuador border

This border area is a major drug trafficking route where various armed groups, including FARC dissidents, have fought to control territory since the FARC began to demobilize in 2016. The coastline and the Mataje River in Esmeraldas province in Ecuador are key conduits for the smuggling of fuel from Ecuador into Colombia, which is used in cocaine production. Cocaine is then smuggled into Ecuador and exported to the U.S. and Europe.


La Mosquitia

This remote region is a transit point along Central America’s cocaine corridor. In 2020, 31 illegal airstrips used for drug-smuggling planes were destroyed in the area. Colombian and Venezuelan planes are known to land in the region, delivering cocaine that will head north through Guatemala. Authorities have been active in La Mosquitia since 2018, but the lack of infrastructure and difficult terrain have enabled organized crime groups to maintain control.

Colombia-Venezuela border

The ELN, FARC dissidents and other criminal groups are active between Norte de Santander and Táchira state in Venezuela, where contraband, drug smuggling and human trafficking are common. Farther south, along the border between Arauca department in Colombia and Venezuela’s Apure state, ELN and FARC dissidents control the social, political and economic lives of people and have penetrated local politics.


“Mining Arc”

Various criminal groups, including the ELN, FARC dissidents and Venezuelan sindicatos (local mining mafias) are competing for control of gold mines in Bolívar state. The worsening political and economic crisis in Venezuela has caused impoverished Venezuelans to work in the mines, in deplorable conditions and under tight control from armed groups.


northern and southern borders

The northwest Amazon region is home to a key drug-smuggling corridor where FARC dissidents, Red Command and the PCC are active. The Família do Norte (Family of the North) gang exerts control over the city of Tabatinga on the Brazilian side. The southern area bordering Paraguay and Argentina is a hub of criminal activity, including arms and drug trafficking, the smuggling of goods, counterfeited documents and currency, and money laundering.


Terra Indígena Munduruku Pará
and Terra Indígena Sai Cinza

Several groups operate in the region, with both illegal mining and illegal timber extraction providing the bulk of the revenue. The heavy equipment used in both types of operations suggests a much more powerful organization behind the poor and indigenous people who are usually blamed for the damage inflicted to the forest.


Ponta Porã in Mato Grosso


Pedro Juan Caballero

Since the criminal in charge of the area for decades — dubbed “King of the Border” — was killed inside a bullet-proof vehicle by a rival organization in 2016, this border area has seen constant fighting between rival groups PCC and Red Command. At stake is the main route for heavy weapons smuggled into Brazil and Bolivian cocaine heading to Europe.


Favelas in Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo and Salvador

Paramilitary groups comprised of former police officers and other security personnel, as well as the PCC and Red Command, control entire sections of these cities, often engaging in gun battles. Organized crime groups also exert full command in most state prisons. Law enforcement officials are known to send convicted criminals to prisons controlled by the groups to which they have pledged allegiance.
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Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
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