Daniel Becerril/REUTERS
Policemen stand next to evidence markers at a crime scene in a working class neighborhood in Monterrey, Mexico, September 25, 2012.

New force pushing refugees: Flight from organized crime in Latin America

Violence perpetrated by criminal groups led to 5.6 million Latin Americans living in displacement in 2011, mainly in Colombia, Mexico, Guatemala, and Peru, according to a displacement monitoring center.

• Insight Crime researches, analyzes, and investigates organized crime in the Americas. Find all of Sibylla Brodzinsky’s work here.

Forced displacement has a long history in Latin America. For decades – and even centuries in some countries – entire villages, families, and individuals have sought refuge in the nearest town or neighboring country, fleeing the crossfire between two groups and threats to their lives.

Today, millions of Latin Americans are facing a new challenge that is leading to a familiar scenario. Organized crime – which takes the form of large narco-trafficking cartels, street gangs, local drug dealing groups, leftist guerrillas, and private armies – is displacing thousands of people in the region.

“Violence perpetrated for criminal rather than ideological ends remained a primary cause of displacement,” notes the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, which recorded 5.6 million Latin Americans living in displacement in 2011, mainly in Colombia, Mexico, Guatemala, and Peru.

The reasons are many. Organized crime removes people who interfere with their business. They take over key territories for smuggling drugs, people, weapons, or other merchandise. People also flee when criminal groups forcibly recruit their children, their neighbors. Sometimes these criminals simply want to flex their muscles, forcing people to leave to prove their point.

Since organized crime in Latin America knows no borders, neither should journalistic coverage of its effects on citizens. To investigate how criminal organizations affect fundamental rights, an alliance of digital media in the region – under the coordination of InSight Crime and with the support of the Internews non-governmental organization in Washington DC – explored the new face of displacement in Latin America.

In Colombia, where about four million people have been displaced in the past 25 years by actors in the armed conflict in that country, VerdadAbierta.com explored new forms of displacement in the border province of Norte de Santander, where every day peasants join the ranks of the dispossessed, escaping threats, extortion by narco-paramilitary groups and guerrillas, and the fighting between these groups and the security forces.

In El Salvador, El Faro investigated the silent and almost invisible displacement of residents of neighborhoods under the control of street gangs that threaten to recruit young people and that foster a climate of generalized violence. El Faro describes how the houses abandoned by those who fled give testimony of the lives of their former occupants.

And while IDMC mentions displacement in Guatemala as a result of that country's civil war, which ended in 1996, Plaza Publica found that in the department of Peten – the largest in the country – violent criminal organizations, such as the Zetas, are causing a new displacement of residents and palm oil companies are taking over vast territories for their plantations through the intimidation of farmers.

Finally, in Mexico, where the violence of the drug cartels and their private armies is becoming increasingly bloody, a number estimated at 160,000 people have been forced to flee their homes.

"In Mexico, drug cartels continued to attack government forces, public sector workers, civilians, and journalists as they fought to control trafficking routes, forcing people to flee their place of residence,” according to the IDMC. “Locations close to the border with the United States were particularly affected.”

As Animal Politico discovered, local and national governments try to minimize the problem of mass displacement caused in the Golden Triangle where residents are caught in the middle of a dispute for territory.

In much of the region the response of the authorities is similar: To not recognize the new face of the crimes, or register their magnitude. This political stance has real-life implications as foreign agencies cannot support the victims without some public recognition of the issue. Meanwhile, people continue to flee.

  Insight Crime researches, analyzes, and investigates organized crime in the Americas. Find all of Sibylla Brodzinsky's work here.

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