The Five Most Powerful Criminal Organizations in South America

Colombian National Police seizing criminal weapons (Flickr)
Colombian National Police seizing illegal firearms. (Flickr)

EspañolAccording to Small and Singer, an international war is a military event with more than 1,000 murders that requires the intervention of at least two states.

Under that definition, South America has experienced a small number of international wars. While Europe experienced seven international wars during the early years of the twentieth century, South America lived through three. However, the continent experiences the constant presence of illegal armed groups, some created in the region, other imported.

Some of the aforementioned militias and guerrillas have political goals, and others don’t. Despite their great differences, all these organizations have one thing in common: drug use as a source of funding. Here are the five most powerful illegal armed groups.

5. The National Liberation Army (ELN)

ELN is a guerrilla organization founded by a group of Colombian admirers of the Cuban Revolution. But due to the presence of Catholic priests in the organization, the ELN took positions near the so-called Liberation Theology. It is estimated that, currently, the guerrilla group has about 2,000 men, making it the fifth-largest illegal armed guerilla organization on the continent. It has sought to negotiate with the Colombian government on many occasions, even under the administration of Alvaro Uribe, but it has never reached a final agreement. Today, it’s working through negotiations to demobilize, but has run into problems over whether or not to release its hostages.

This guerrilla operates in 11 of Colombia’s departments, including Nariño, Valle del Cauca, Antioquia, Arauca, Cesar and Norte de Santander.

4. The Gulf Clan 
After the peace process between the Colombian paramilitary group Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC) and Alvaro Uribe’s administration between 2003 and 2006, some armed group fighters continued to fight.

Castaño’s Heroes Bloc, an armed group created by Vicente Castano Gil and Daniel Rendón Herrera — alias “Don Mario” — were the leaders of this resistance. Due to its expansion into the region of Urabá, the group would later became known as “Los Urabeños.” Given the importance of the Úsuga brothers, former Maoist militants and former members of the PLA and later of the AUC, the organization became known as the Úsuga Clan.

Though for some the Gulf Clan is exclusively a drug trafficking organization, the illegal armed group says it defends an “anti-subversive” ideology. In order to be recognized as a belligerent group, the Clan seeks to be called Gaitanistas of Colombia (AGC). It is estimated that the Gulf Clan has between 1,200 and 5,000 men.

The headquarters of the organization are somewhere in the region of Urabá, in the Colombian departments of Antioquia, Choco and Cordoba, but the Clan Gulf also operates in the departments of Magdalena, Sucre, La Guajira, Cesar and North of Santander.

3. Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC)
The PCC is the largest criminal organization in Brazil. It was founded in 1993 in Sao Paulo’s prisons. The purpose of this illegal armed group was to avenge the death of prisoners in Brazilian prisons. The PCC began organizing riots in São Paulo prisons in the early ’70s, but managed to expand its support throughout Brazil. This criminal group has also targeted the Brazilian State and local state governments with bomb threats and attacks.

2006 was the busiest year for PCC. The Primeiro Comando da Capital made a series of attacks on police, buses and banks. It’s funded primarily by drug trafficking, robberies and assaults. The number of members ranges between 6,000 and 10,000.

It is currently operating in 22 of the 25 states of Brazil, but is most powerful in São Paulo.

2. Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia
The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia are a Marxist-Leninist group who in recent years has expressed Bolivarian guerrilla sympathies. The self-styled “People’s Army” began fighting in 1964 to bring socialism into Colombia. This guerrilla organization survives on kidnapping, extortion and drug trafficking. FARC is one of the most important cartels of drug trafficking in the world.

Currently, the group is negotiating a peace agreement with President Juan Manuel Santos’ adminstration. However, after the people voted against the deal in a referendum, it remains in limbo. Colombia’s government estimates that the illegal armed group has about 17,500 members.

FARC has a presence in 25 of the 32 departments of Colombia. Given the strong presence of this organization in border areas, the guerrillas have set up camps in Ecuador and Venezuela as well. This guerrilla group had an “office” in Mexico and numerous connections in several countries of the European Union.

 1. Hezbollah
This terrorist organization is one of the most powerful in the world. According to the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, the Lebanese radical group has around 45,000 troops. Almost all of them are based in Lebanon and Syria, but the organization has cells in Africa, America and Europe.

The illegal organization was founded during the Lebanese civil war in 1982. Hezbollah was created by Lebanese Shiite admirers of the Iranian regime of Ayatollah Khomeini. Its main objectives are the struggle against American and Israeli targets, the mainly Sunni monarchies of Saudi Arabia and the implementation of a Shiite regime in Lebanon. In the Syrian Civil War, Hezbollah supports the Assad regime and its allies.

United States, Israel, the Arab League and the Netherlands consider the organization a terrorist group.

What do they do in Latin America? The “Army of God” has operated in South America since the ’80s. Director of the American Center for Democracy Rachel Ehrenfeld, the organization was strengthened in the region by the Iranian regime’s alliance with countries like Venezuela and Bolivia. The organization traffics drugs and launders money. Their presence is particularly strong in Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Venezuela and Colombia.

In addition to drug trafficking and money laundering, the US Embassy in Paraguay said Hezbollah was responsible for the attacks against the Israeli Embassy in Argentina and the Israeli Mutual Association of Argentina (AMIA) in 1994.

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