Transnational Organized Crime in Central America and the Caribbean: A Threat Assessment

This report is one of several studies conducted by UNODC on organized crime threats around the world. These studies describe what is known about the mechanics of contraband trafficking - the what, who, how, and how much of illicit flows - and discuss their potential impact on governance and development. Their primary role is diagnostic, but they also explore the implications of these findings for policy.


Central America and the Caribbean, particularly countries in the Northern Triangle, face  extreme violence inflamed by transnational organized crime and drug trafficking. According to UNODC's own studies, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras now have some of the highest homicide rates in the world.

There is little doubt, therefore, that these transnational issues present major challenges to countries within the region and to the wider international community. Criminal networks and their activities disrupt stability, undermine democratic institutions and hinder the economic activity so vital to the region. All of these issues are apparent within Central America and the Caribbean.

(For more, download 'Preface').

Executive summary

The people of Central America regard crime, and particularly criminal violence, as one of the most important issues facing their countries today. This violence is broadly attributed to the increase in cocaine trafficking through the region since 2006. While there is some truth to this association, the situation is more complicated than it is commonly portrayed.

In the past, Central America was largely a refueling stop for vessels moving cocaine northwards. After 2006, the year the Mexican government implemented its new national security strategy, it became more hazardous for traffickers to ship the drug directly to Mexico, and so an increasing share of the flow began to transit the landmass of Central America.

These new paths traversed areas controlled by local organized crime groups, upsetting the balance of power between them. While these groups had long been involved in cross-border trafficking, the influx of greater volumes of cocaine greatly raised the stakes, promoting competition for territorial control.

(For more, download 'Executive summary')

Cocaine, organized crime groups, and violence

In a number of Central American countries, crime is the paramount public policy issue, deciding elections and changing the relationship between the people and their government. The crime problem in this region has been well researched, including recent work by UNDP and the World Bank, as well as previous UNODC assessments on Central America (2007) and the Caribbean (2007, with the World Bank). There is no need to duplicate this work, so the present study will focus on what is widely recognized to be the central threat confronting the region today: the flow of cocaine; the criminal groups this flow empowers; and the violence associated with both.

(For more, download 'Cocaine, organized crime groups, and violence')

The importance of territorial groups in Central America

UNODC's first global transnational organized crime threat assessment (TOCTA) ( The Globalization of Crime: A transnational organized crime threat assessment, published in 2010) spoke of two ways of looking at organized crime. The first, and more common, is to focus on the groups involved.

The global TOCTA found, however, that most transnational organized crime is rather systemic, or market-based. As long as supply and demand exist, removing particular intermediaries is not sufficient to destroy the market. This is especially true in a globalized world.

(For more, download 'The importance of territorial groups in Central America')

Cocaine from South America to the United States

The history of cocaine trafficking from South America to the United States has been well documented. The flow peaked in the 1980s. During most of this time, Colombian traffickers dominated the market, and they often preferred to use the Caribbean as a transit area. Due to vigorous law enforcement, the Colombian groups were weakened in the 1990s, and Mexican groups progressively assumed control of most of the trafficking chain.

As a product of this shift, an ever-increasing share of the cocaine entering the United States did so over the southwestern land border. Initially, direct shipments to Mexico were favoured, with stopovers in Central America largely limited to refueling. After 2000, and especially after 2006, law enforcement increased the risks of shipping directly to Mexico. Consequently, Central America took on new importance as a transit and storage area, and parts of the Caribbean were reactivated.

(For more, download 'Cocaine from South America to the United States')

Smuggling of migrants from the Northern Triangle to the United States

All migrants want to improve their lives. Not all of them can fulfill the administrative requirements to migrate legally to the United States, so some of them decide to breach the law and become "irregular migrants". There are essentially two ways of doing this. For those Central Americans who can afford the airfare and are able to get a visa, either with or without the assistance of an agent, the simplest way is to fly in and overstay the visa. For those unable to secure visas, there is the tried and true route of travelling the length of Mexico and crossing the border clandestinely. Illegally crossing the United States land border is quite difficult, and most of the irregular migrants employ smugglers. And it is this latter flow of people - the migrants smuggled through Mexico to the United States - that is the subject of this chapter.

(For more, download 'Smuggling of migrants from the Northern Triangle to the United States')

Trafficking of women and girls within Central America

With tens of thousands of people migrating irregularly, it is not surprising that some of this migration leads to exploitation. As soon as migrants leave home soil with the intent of moving undetected, they enter into a shadowy world. They place their lives in the hands of strangers who flout the law, and many pay dearly for this decision. Women are particularly vulnerable: female irregular migrants comprise around 20 per cent of the migrant pool.

Most of the Central American trafficking victims detected in Central America have been trafficked for the purposes of sexual exploitation, but it is unclear whether this is representative of the larger victim pool. Local laws may specifically prohibit sexual exploitation but remain vague about other forms of labour.

(For more, download 'Trafficking of women and girls within Central America')

Firearms within Central America

If Central America's biggest problem is violence, and 77 per cent of all murders in the region are committed with a firearm, then stopping the flow of weapons to criminals should be a top priority. The threat of firearm violence is also undermining governance in the region. Local police are apprehensive that they are out-gunned, that organized criminals have access to military arms left over from the civil wars, and there have been some dramatic acts of violence to back this apprehension up. This alleged imbalance of power is used to justify use of the military in policing. For these reasons, it is important to understand the nature of the regional illicit firearms market.

(For more, download 'Firearms within Central America')


Measuring the impact of any social phenomenon is difficult, and it is especially so for clandestine matters like transnational organized crime. The following discussion does not aspire to being comprehensive, but rather focuses on four areas where impact is relatively clear: violence, drug use, economic development, and governance.

(For more, download 'Impact')

Implications for policy

The following discussion is aimed at investigating some of the broader implications of the descriptive work above. These are not "recommendations" per se. To provide recommendations would require a comprehensive review of the capacities of the affected states, the interventions attempted to date, and the impact of these interventions. Such a "needs assessment" should be undertaken, but would require a dedicated study, and is beyond the scope of the present work. Rather, the research above has revealed something about the nature of the threat confronted, and this allows some general conclusions about what is likely to work in reducing the threat.

(For more, download 'Implications for policy')

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Key Findings

Although several contraband flows affect the region, the paramount crime issue is cocaine trafficking, the groups empowered by it, and the violence associated with this flow.

In response to an increasingly inhospitable environment in Mexico, traffickers have shifted their focus to new routes along the Guatemalan/Honduran border and contesting new " plazas" throughout the region. Displacement to the Caribbean remains a threat.

The contest today is between longstanding organized crime families that effectively govern the remote areas of the countries in which they operate. In addition to cocaine trafficking, these groups are involved in a wide range of organized crime activities, and manipulate local politics. If cocaine flows abate, they will seek revenues from other forms of acquisitive crime, such as extortion, which may cause violence levels to increase.

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