Latin America, a Continent Dominated by Maras, Gangs, Cartels and Guerrillas

Maras, cartels, guerrillas and organized crime spread their tentacles across borders. This is the panorama of crime in Latin America.

FARC members

Photo: Institute for National Strategic Studies

LatinAmerican Post | Santiago Gómez Hernández

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Leer en español: Latinoamérica, un continente dominado por las maras, carteles y guerrillas

A couple of weeks ago, the update of the ranking of the 50 most dangerous cities in the world was released. Among these, 37 were Latin American cities. Countries like Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, Honduras, and Ecuador dominate this infamous list. This shows that the problem of crime in Latin America is not a national problem, but rather plagues almost all the countries in the region. One of the reasons is that today criminal gangs have broken national borders and many of these have operations in several countries.

You can also read: El Salvador: Mega Prisons, a Real Solution Against Crime?

These are several of the criminal gangs that are certain to operate from and in more than one country.

Colombian Guerrillas

For many decades, the power of the different guerrillas in Colombian territory has expanded to neighboring countries. Groups like the FARC and the ELN have had a presence and, apparently, work in countries like Venezuela and Ecuador.

Today, the ELN has a power of 4,000 armed men, of which close to a thousand are in Venezuela. According to InsightCrime, the ELN today has a presence in 8 of the 24 Venezuelan states. Likewise, the strongholds of the extinct FARC also have a presence along a large part of the border with Venezuela.


Las Maras are criminal gangs that are associated with El Salvador. However, the best known (Mara Salvatrucha MS-13 and Mara Barrio 18) were not born in the Central American country, but in Los Angeles, United States. Currently, they present a great threat to several countries, such as the United States itself, Canada, Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and several countries in Europe.

According to the United States Department of Justice, both Barrio 18 and MS-13 are the main causes of the greatest violence in Central American countries. Currently, the president of El Salvador, Nayib Bukele, is advancing a direct confrontation with these gangs to reduce crime in the country. Likewise, it is feared that they have an interest in expanding into South America, escaping persecution in El Salvador. Likewise, there is also information that they are increasing their presence in Mexico.

Drug Cartels

Although the Colombian cartels were the most powerful in the past, today the Mexican cartels are the most powerful in the entire continent. Groups such as the Sinaloa Cartel, the Northeast Cartel (Zetas), Jalisco Nueva Generación, among others, have a presence in many countries such as the United States, South America, and even on other continents. However, rather than having cells abroad, the cartels have chosen to ally with local groups.

Commandos of Brazil

The First Command of the Capital and the Red Command are two of the largest mega-gangs in Brazil. Their heads and power are both in the country's jails and in the streets. Despite the fact that they are traditionally national and have little internationalization, the authorities have detected actions (in alliance with local groups) in Paraguay, Colombia, Bolivia, and Uruguay.

Tren de Aragua 

The Tren de Aragua or also called "Aragua train warriors" is a criminal gang that began operations at the end of the first decade of the 2000s in the state of Aragua, in Venezuela. The authorities estimate that it has more than 100 members and operates in countries such as Brazil, Peru, Bolivia, Colombia, and Chile. Also, their actions have even been identified in Spain, Romania, Italy, and Belgium.

This demonstrates that the national approach to policies to reduce violence must have a cooperative and regional vision. Institutions, both police and justice, need a solid relationship with several countries. The creation of special groups such as Europol in the countries of the European Union may be one of the measures that may be taken in the future as an example.

Latin America, a Continent Dominated by Maras, Gangs, Cartels and Guerrillas

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