In this scenario, in much of Latin America, democracy is appropriated by the predatory influence of illicit trade that prevails over—or coexists with—government action. In cases where territory is governed de facto by organized crime, which imposes its force and allows for a temporary prosperity, citizens oscillate between cynicism and in some cases despair. In cases where territory is in dispute, they are ruled by terror. The political decision-making system serves a series of hidden interests that disguise their true intentions behind imaginary and legitimate citizen demands. Corruption becomes the way of life for politicians, businesspeople, and criminals alike, who live and thrive in the shadow of the state. Illegal activities reconfigure not only the monopoly of state power but also legitimate business activity and patterns of coexistence in cities and neighborhoods. Fifteen years of violence lead some territories to fall out of the control of nation states and, even worse, some failed states that the regional and international communities simply try to contain. The common destiny of the democracies in the region is on edge. It is the scenario of violence, fear, feelings of defeat, and the hijacking of democracy.
Since 2015, political parties and citizens are even more alienated from each other. The ideological and programmatic goals of the former increasingly become functional instruments of corruption and crime. Political parties now serve as opportunistic electoral machinery financed by organized crime and businesses that owe their fortunes to permanent collusion with the weaknesses of the state. As the parties bring in more money and are better able to bring people together, they often stifle citizen initiatives that are well intentioned but without the means to get their message to resonate in the population. Long-standing traditional policy paradigms are strengthened as the general rule, and clichés such as “a politician without money is a poor politician” become popular. Once in power, representatives must be accountable and useful to the private interests that financed and promoted them.
In any case, after 2015, it becomes clear in several cases that the growing state vacuum does not mean the disappearance of bureaucracy: what is left is a rudimentary administrative structure, with narrow margins of political action, limited implementation capacity, and no mechanisms or incentives for major renovation. Meanwhile, particularly vulnerable groups are adrift, without the focused attention of the state to prevent their entry into the world of illegality. And above all, in many countries in the region, there is no political will to learn from past mistakes, create a collective vision to clean up the government, and lead the fight against crime with a combination of pragmatism, shared responsibilities, transparency, and prevalence of the fundamental rights and guarantees of a democratic state.
Disunity and lack of vision and political will are visible, for example, at the United Nations General Assembly Special Session in 2016 devoted to the issue of drugs. Many consider this gathering conducive to reaching a joint position to effectively drive certain reforms to the drug policies that so heavily impact the region’s stability. However, some Latin American governments prefer passivity, others convenience, still others moral fundamentalism, and all lack boldness. In many countries, leaders hesitate to pursue different options for fear of international economic sanctions, or they simply give in to the customary opposition of Latin American public opinion to reform of drug policy and the regulation of marijuana. This prevents a basic regional consensus on alternative approaches to a problem that is by definition cross-border and therefore requires solutions that transcend the boundaries of nation states. At the end of the session, little is achieved, despite that fact that other regions sign on to democratically endorsed majority agreements, particularly regarding the policies of reduction of harm and the need to take consumption as a health and not a criminal problem.
The legal and institutional paradigm of the fight against drugs that guides the military struggle against the supply and prevails in the region for several years is well in place, with few exceptions. According to many studies, this approach explains the upsurge in violence and the expansion of ties between drug traffickers and the political, economic, and social development of a growing group of countries in the region. In fact, many analysts agree that at the end of the second decade of the century, no single country in Latin America remains outside the range of global drug trafficking. Meanwhile, the consumption of illicit drugs in the world remains constant.
The dilemma is not limited to drug trafficking. As happens so often in history, the threats do not end but are transformed, now supported by new technologies. The strengthened networks of traffickers perceive that the relative weakness or complete absence of democratic institutions and the corrupting power of money provide incentives to go beyond the profitable drug market. Globally, there are a number of criminal activities whose profits are so great that government action always succumbs to the logic of illegal markets. The 2020s in Latin America are characterized by, among other things, the expansion of illicit trade in all kinds of weapons, counterfeit items, pirated goods and stolen ideas, precious metals, human organs, and undocumented or enslaved people. In keeping with emerging global trends, cybercrime, related to digital crimes such as theft, extortion, and espionage, becomes more deeply rooted in the region. Cyber attacks against public entities and companies increase, and a new kind of offender with the power to destabilize the region is reported: the “cyber capo” who operates at the head of an underground digital cartel with growing strength. Natural resources are subject to uncontrolled exploitation, with corresponding damage to the water supply. The powerful amoral logic of the illicit market spreads like wildfire, and governments do not know how to extinguish the fire. In some cases, due to pressure from and the political influence of the traffickers, there’s not even a real interest in extinguishing it.
Between 2020 and 2030, the number of killings and disappearances attributed to smuggling reaches epidemic proportions, unprecedented even in the disturbing events in Latin America around the turn of the century. The phenomenon of criminal violence that was common in parts of Mexico, Colombia, and the Northern Triangle countries spreads and is now a daily occurrence in an alarming percentage of the region, despite its demographic and geographic complexity. The region is positioned, again and repeatedly, as the most violent and deadly area of the world.
Organized crime is a de facto power in a growing number of towns and territories, where public services are absent. Millions of Latin Americans must live by the conditions set by the criminals, who impose their own rules on justice, taxation, and security. They either give in or they try to leave. Legal taxes are replaced by extortion. The mechanisms for resolving conflicts and disputes are now based more on strength than on the law. New sports infrastructures are built, financed by illegal money. In sum, organized crime supplies its own judgment in the absence of the state. Criminals seek to legitimize their presence in society, and in many cases they succeed. Numerous examples starkly illustrate the problem of criminality, but in others, normal activities function properly, even without state protection, such as tourism, trade, and carnivals. In this way, organized crime paradoxically serves as a source of peace and stability, including the provision of public goods and the prevention of a significant spiral of violence.
All in all, after 2025, there’s a surge in the number of analyses and press releases that refer to Latin America as the region in which, as never before in history, governments built on democratic ideals have been undermined. In an alarming percentage of territories and in specific countries, the cases of the hijacking of democracy slowly go from being isolated anomalies to being the rule.
In the second decade of the 21st century, young people from marginalized areas continue to be the main victims and the main perpetrators. Urban gangs remain cheap labor for traffickers and grow due to the lack of opportunities, the large number of school dropouts, and the need for recognition and membership for those who cannot find it elsewhere. Above all, these young people see examples of greed and easy money, and among this group more than others the trafficking and consumption of drugs soars. Gender violence rises, and under common patriarchal archetypes such as gang culture, opportunities for advancement and civic participation for women, especially those living in rural areas, diminish. Such prejudices extend to the LGBTQ population, which suffers from regular repression in this violent social setting. Many farmers and indigenous peoples are displaced from their villages and forcibly stripped of their possessions. As a result of these factors, in some cases, unemployment rates, poverty, inequality, and environmental imbalance are exacerbated.
Because of these trends, between 2015 and 2030, the region’s productive potential falls by a percentage equivalent to several billion dollars annually. Legitimate businesses must now compete at a disadvantage and at a personal and family risk with the “whitewashed” activities of traffickers that serve as fronts for money laundering. In an environment that is unattractive to investment, some companies go under, which gradually decreases the supply of formal employment opportunities. In turn, informal activities grow exponentially. Less scrupulous businesses lend themselves to money laundering through legitimate business activities such as construction companies, pharmacies, and financial services. Meanwhile, the legitimacy of the judiciary is weakened, due to coercion, corruption, cooptation, and lack of resources. The judiciary thus ceases to be one of the checks and balances of democracy. The army and police are not strangers to criminal activities. Many people in uniform are paid much more than their salaries to ignore violations of the law or protect criminals. In some cases, during their work time, they serve the interests of organized crime under the impunity conferred by their uniforms, and when they remove them, they become clandestine members of the middle or lower levels of criminal armies.
Civil society settles into a pattern of silence, fear, apathy, and sometimes double standards. Many people choose the path of migration, especially to the United States, but also to other countries on the continent. Both parents and unaccompanied and undocumented minors leave. This upturn in migration breaks the basic social cohesion of parental, family, and affective ties. People unsuccessfully try to sustain their connections by sending money home and making periodic visits. The money from remittances sustains some families, but it also has perverse side effects by undermining productive activities and increasing consumption within the territory in which it is received. Also, thousands take refuge in faith and in churches and religious cults, whose operation and activities are in some cases financed by the traffickers themselves. Those who can, the minority, increase spending on private security and live in complete isolation from the rest of the population. These private residential complexes become the new fashion among the elites of the region.
Around 2025, and in the absence of a transnational strategy allowing the joining forces against the threat of crime, each country reacts to the general crisis in different ways. In some cases, a growing number of weary citizens demand a heavy-handed approach, even if it means giving up constitutional provisions and crime prevention policies. In such cases, following a tradition once believed to have been eliminated in the region, some people become involved in government who exercise power arbitrarily, promising short-term populist solutions while constantly violating democratic rights. In other countries, the absence of strong answers within the constitutional and legal framework makes it increasingly common for citizens to heavily arm themselves. They organize patrols and self-defense groups to take the law into their own hands, become involved in the phenomenon of lynchings, or justify the adoption of repressive and totalitarian measures by local authorities.
In specific cases, the governments’ aim is to attack not only the consequences of instability and insecurity within the institutional framework but also the causes, which are almost always related to ancestral problems of social exclusion. In response to the temptation of crime, educational campaigns are undertaken to create greater resilience in communities. Likewise, truces with criminal groups or gangs are reached, which some denounce as a capitulation to crime. In addition, governments initiate major efforts to improve the infrastructure and the quality of public services in the most vulnerable neighborhoods. Cultural and sports activities are also introduced in public spaces recovered from criminals. However, the ability of those governments to focus on social needs is very limited, as public funds have been reduced to the minimum. A perverse relationship is revealed: As social needs increase because of greater insecurity, the economic and financial conditions that allow governments to address the problem become less favorable.
In the mid-2020s, more and more citizens participate in campaigns against the criminal threat. General apathy and indifference contrast with the work of leaders who operate in tiny personal and professional resistance circles to confront the hijacking of institutions through their activism and reluctance to forever live under the shadow of organized crime. Little by little, the evidence shows that neither governments nor their respective countries can achieve results by themselves.
Despite this, many areas of most Latin American countries reach 2030 plunged into a seemingly bottomless crisis of insecurity that takes precedence over all other considerations. These territorial crises pose a significant risk for destabilizing the rest of the region. The weakness of institutions, both a cause and consequence of the crisis, is greater than ever in these territories. Corruption, organized crime, and violence impede sustainable progress in building a system that can safeguard the most basic democratic guarantees. What predominates in these territories is the traditional cooptation of power. In other cases, the alternative of strong-arm tactics prevails, and in others anarchy rules. The collective consciousness is either numb or indoctrinated. People seem a long way from understanding that security is a shared challenge, because its resolution, according to many, can only come from a commitment at both the hemispheric and national levels. At the hemispheric level, because a coordinated action against a threat that knows no boundaries, including national ones, is required. At the national level, because the close links between social exclusion and violence demand a shared responsibility to address priorities and agree on sensible long-term strategies amid the limits imposed by budget constraints.
The most renowned experts in Latin America strongly suggest that an effective fight against crime must include a comprehensive mix of multiple factors, such as prevention, legitimate coercion, advanced technology, greater institutional coordination, community outreach, social investment, harm reduction, international cooperation, a decline in profitability of illegal activity, political will, and judicial reform. However, they say, there are no shortcuts: Only through the construction of an inclusive and transparent democratic system that unites the state, its citizens, and the international community can progress gradually be made in overcoming crime and violence. After 2025, specific cases lead the way in creating the conditions for such circumstances. They are the compass that points the way for other reformist actions, without succumbing to the totalitarian temptation of coups and heavy handedness. The glimmer of hope finally dawns on the horizon. For many, at the dawn of 2030, the region that for decades has been the most insecure in the world has finally learned its lesson, but at too high a cost.