Organized Crime, Main Risk in a Critical Electoral Year for Latin America

By Sam Woolston |  Jan 24th, 2024
El Salvador 2024 Elecions
This article by Sam Woolston originally appeared on and is being published by under a Creative Commons 3.0 license.

Organized crime and insecurity are the primary political risks facing Latin America in 2024 as the region enters a pivotal election year, according to a new report that underscores the complex security situation newly elected leaders will face.

Major elections are slated across the region, including presidential elections in El Salvador, Panama, Mexico, and Venezuela. In these races, organized crime and the state’s response promise to be defining issues with voters.

The findings of the report, published by the Centro UC Estudios Internacionales (CEIUC), a Chilean think tank, were based on a regional survey of nearly 1,200 members of the general public. For a second consecutive year, those surveyed put organized crime as the region’s top political risk.

“The region has no major threats of war, but it is increasingly besieged by violence, organized crime, and drug trafficking, amid a significant decline in recent years that has transformed it into one of the most homicidal regions in the world,” the report’s authors wrote.

Below, InSight Crime looks at four key presidential elections to watch this year and how organized crime might shape what happens at the polls.

El Salvador: February 4

In El Salvador, President Nayib Bukele looks all but certain to win re-election. His first term has been defined by his tough-on-crime security measures, which started with a state of exception declared in March 2022 following a spate of gang killings.

Constitutional rights were partially suspended and gangs were designated “terrorist organizations.” An extensive roundup followed, which eventually led to more than 1% of the population being held behind bars, many in a new maximum-security mega-prison.

These measures seemed to resonate with the majority of Salvadorans, and the strategy appears to have squashed violence. The country has gone from one of the most murderous in the world in 2016 to logging 154 homicides in 2023, representing a murder rate of just 2.4 per 100,000 citizens, according to official police data.

The strategy has, for now, neutralized the country’s three main gangs, the MS13, Barrio 18 Revolucionarios, and the Barrio 18 Sureños, as InSight Crime chronicled in a recent investigation. Voters look likely to reward Bukele at the polls, he has consistently been ranked as Latin America’s most popular president.

While the prospect of Bukele’s re-election does not bode well for El Salvador’s weakened gangs in the short term, it is yet to be seen whether the security gains can be sustained once those incarcerated start to leave prison. Prisons in El Salvador have historically been breeding grounds for crime, and while authorities are in control of prison facilities, it is not clear what will happen once convicts eventually are released.

Further, the security forces who are responsible for implementing Bukele’s strict anti-gang measures have been accused of committing crimes themselves. In 2022, a report from the US State Department noted credible evidence of arbitrary detention, torture, forced disappearances, and unlawful killings.

Finally, there is a risk that Bukele’s government, which has long used the country’s security crises to centralize power, feels emboldened to engage in criminal activity themselves. Several corruption investigations earlier in Bukele’s term were thwarted after legislators aligned with the government ousted El Salvador’s attorney general in 2021.

Panama: May 5

Voters in Panama will head to the polls on May 5 in an election that currently looks likely to tip in the favor of Ricardo Martinelli, a former president who was recently tried and convicted for money laundering. Martinelli faces a 10-year prison sentence after embezzling state funds to purchase personal shares in Editora Panamá, a media conglomerate.

While the sentence is enough to disqualify Martinelli’s candidacy, he has submitted repeated appeals and continues his presidential run. In a separate case in 2022, Martinelli’s two sons, Luis and Ricardo, pleaded guilty to receiving $28 million in bribes from Odebrecht, the disgraced Brazilian construction conglomerate that paid off political elites across the region.

The election of Martinelli could mark a step back for a country that has made recent strides in the fight against corruption. In October, for example, Panama was taken off the Financial Action Task Force’s (FATF) so-called gray list, which singles out countries that are not doing enough to combat money laundering, in recognition of the country’s efforts to strengthen such controls.

Given Martinelli’s past conviction, his election could reduce the government’s willingness to tackle organized crime groups that have historically used Panama to evade taxes and launder money.

Mexico: June 2

Mexicans will choose their next and first female president on June 2. The winner will immediately face profound security challenges characterized by increasingly diverse and horizontally integrated criminal groups, a boom in drug trafficking, and endemic corruption that penetrates the heart of the Mexican state.

What’s more, two-thirds of Mexicans polled say insecurity is the worst problem in the country, up from one-third three years ago, according to a survey by Reforma.

The homicide rate recently fell slightly but remained shockingly high in 2023 at 22.9 homicides per 100,000 people, according to preliminary data from the Mexican government. However, other crimes like extortion have reached near-record highs, and the country is still struggling to manage a crisis of forced disappearances. Abysmal trust in security forces — which have been repeatedly implicated in corruption, extrajudicial killings, and human rights abuses — has prevented many Mexicans from reporting crimes.

Claudia Sheinbaum, the favored candidate and protégé of current President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, better known as AMLO, has mirrored his rhetoric focusing on addressing the root causes of crime on the campaign trail. However, AMLO’s actions have often diverged from his words as his administration has opted for further militarization rather than any long-term focus on the root causes of the country’s security crisis.

Venezuela: Unconfirmed

Increasing international pressure has been mounting on the government of Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela to hold national elections this year. Under Maduro’s authoritarian leadership, Venezuela’s economy has collapsed while organized crime has bloomed, leading to more than 7 million people fleeing the country so far.

The exodus has been a boon to criminal groups outside of Venezuela that control territory along the migration corridor to the United States, many of which extort significant sums from migrants for the privilege of heading north.

Venezuela is also an exporter of organized crime. Tren de Aragua, the country’s most notorious gang, has taken advantage of the migrant exodus by trapping migrants into debt, forcing them into sexual exploitation, and sending gang leaders to different countries, ultimately giving the gang access to lucrative international criminal economies.

The line between organized crime and the state has become increasingly blurred, with criminal actors and the government frequently working together. Armed political groups, known as colectivos, work with the government to threaten opposition leaders and coerce the Venezuelan public to vote a certain way. Recent polls suggest that colectivos may prove essential if the Maduro government has any hope of clinging to power. Consultores 21, a Caracas-based consulting firm, found Maduro’s approval ratings remain low at around 28%.

Venezuela’s elections, if they take place, represent a wildcard in Latin America’s electoral map. Any government that gets elected will have to confront deteriorated institutions and sophisticated organized crime groups intimately linked to state officials.

This article by Sam Woolston originally appeared on and is being published by under a Creative Commons 3.0 license.