Latin American organised crime is changing the European landscape

Ludmila Quirós argues that the growing infiltration of Latin American criminal actors into EU territory is seriously undermining the bloc's security – and radically changing organised crime in Europe

A new criminal dynamic is emerging in the European landscape

Latin American organised crime is transforming European drug markets in a number of ways. This is not new — indeed, interactions between Latin American syndicates and their European counterparts have been going on for years. But three new trends in these criminal dynamics are causing deep concern at the heart of European Union institutions. These trends raise the question of whether Latin American drug cartels are bringing violence to Europe and prompting a paradigm shift in European organised crime.

Old threats, new threats

The first trend concerns the role of Mexican criminal actors in the production of methamphetamine in north-western Europe. Recent Europol reports have highlighted the worrying infiltration of Mexican illicit actors into the European drug market landscape. Mexican cartels are known to cooperate with EU-based criminal networks in cocaine trafficking. However, little attention has thus far been paid to their role in the production of synthetic drugs on European territory.

Very recently, I suggested that Mexican criminal groups were becoming key players in European cocaine markets. True, on the basis of available media reports, the number of members of Mexican cartels dedicated exclusively to methamphetamine production remains small. Yet, this in no way underestimates the influence of Mexican organised crime on European synthetic drug markets. Rather, what we are seeing is a transfer of know-how and a 'swallow migration' of criminal syndicate members to countries such as the Netherlands, France and Belgium, where they help set up clandestine methamphetamine laboratories.

We are seeing a transfer of know-how and criminal syndicate members to northern Europe, where they set up clandestine methamphetamine laboratories

The second trend is the internationalisation of the Brazilian Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC) in Portugal. In recent years, Brazil's main prison-based gang has become a key player in the trafficking of cocaine from South America through lusophone Africa to European markets, using Portugal as a gateway. This 'migration' of PCC members to the Iberian peninsula has led to important changes in the Portuguese criminal structure, such as an increase in extortion. In turn, PCC members have also been found to have infiltrated Portuguese prisons.

The third trend has to do with the escalation of criminal gun violence in several European countries. In this context, a recent EMCDDA report focused on the growing demand for firearms by a wide range of European criminal groups, particularly those involved in drug trafficking operations.

Latin American organised crime and European security

The growing infiltration of Latin American criminal actors into Europe poses a considerable threat to EU security. Drug-related violence in some European countries is being seen as a consequence of such Latin American criminal infiltration.

Until recently there has not been enough evidence to link Latin American drug violence to criminal violence in Europe. This may now be changing

However, with the exception of the violence perpetrated by Latin gangs in various Spanish cities, until recently there has not been enough evidence to link Latin American drug violence to criminal violence in Europe. This may now be changing. We now see increasing territorial disputes and contract killings carried out by Colombian agents on behalf of European criminal organisations.

Deterring Latin American criminal violence

Is it possible for drug-related violence perpetrated by Latin American criminal organisations to occur in the heart of Europe? Probably not, or at least not to the extent known in Latin America, for three reasons.

First, the presence of large mafias regulates drug markets. The literature argues that this type of market is generally peaceful and only occasionally violent. But mafias tend to act as a deterrent to new foreign players entering the market in a non-peaceful ways.

Mafias tend to act as a deterrent to new foreign players entering the market in a non-peaceful ways

Second, Latin American criminal groups may face obstacles in gaining access to weapons. Unlike in Latin America, the illegal firearms market in the EU remains modest. Moreover, few local criminal organisations are involved in this activity. In addition, controls in the European bloc tend to be more comprehensive. The high risk associated with arms trafficking often acts as a deterrent to criminal groups seeking to enter this type of illicit market.

Third, Latin American criminal organisations tend to be rational actors who define their objectives on the basis of a cost-benefit calculation. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the objectives of the Mexican cartels in Europe are not to engage in violence. This is partly because they would be playing in a completely unfamiliar arena with different conflict resolution mechanisms. It is also partly because mafias are great regulators; they define who gets in and who does not. This means that it is difficult to imagine large-scale organised criminal violence carried out exclusively by Latin American criminal groups, as we are used to seeing in Latin America.

A shift in the European organised crime landscape?

The increasing infiltration of Latin American criminal organisations into European territory is dynamically changing the criminal structure of the bloc. Different forms of drug-related violence are emerging, many of which involve territorial disputes in the context of micro-trafficking.

In this sense, although the involvement of Latin American criminal actors in drug-related violence on European territory is still low, the imitation of criminal practices is becoming more evident. This means we must deepen our understanding of how Latin American criminal organisations influence their European counterparts.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Ludmila Quirós
Ludmila Quirós
Researcher, Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime

Ludmila received her BA in Political Science and International Relations from the Universidad Argentina de la Empresa (UADE) and her MA in International Relations and Global Security from the Università La Sapienza (Italia).

Her research focuses on Latin American organised crime, criminal violence, non-state actors, transnational environmental crimes and Feminist Security Studies from a Global South perspective.

She tweets @_ludmilaquiros

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