Ecuador is the latest example of a peaceful, relatively low crime country that descended in chaos due to rising gang activity. Although the conflict between the government and rival drug gangs started in December 2020, most of the world ignored the potential problem until August 2023, when a presidential candidate was assassinated 11 days before the election. Things devolved from there, with one drug gang taking over a television station, and the government pledging to “neutralize” drug gangs.
Extreme crime threatens business activities, employees, and property. It is critical to understand the criminal hot-spots and to prepare for the possibility of escalating violence in areas with known high crime.
Crime is increasing globally, in every region, and in many cases the authorities are overwhelmed and under prepared to deal with the violence.
Latin America and the Caribbean
The most dangerous countries in the region are El Salvador, Venezuela, Honduras, Mexico, and Haiti.
El Salvador is well known for its criminal gangs, including the MS-13. The country has the highest murder rate in the world, thanks largely to its history of poverty, civil war, porous borders, and its transit routes from South America to North America. Additionally, the government has few resources to fight the gangs.
Venezuela’s poverty and years of collusion between the government and drug traffickers has contributed to the violent crime in Venezuela. The country currently is experiencing high rates of murder, violent crime, robbery and kidnapping, and there is no will by the government to stop the activity.
The very high murder and crime rate in Honduras is closely linked to drug activity in the country. Honduras has long acted as a secure transit route from South America to North America, and drug gangs also engage in murder, extortion, human trafficking and other criminal activities. Political will to stop the criminal activity is non-existent and politicians are likely complicit in the drug trade. This is exemplified by the sentencing of the brother of the former president to life in prison for trafficking.
Mexico’s border with the United States has made it one of the most appealing jurisdictions for criminal gangs linked to drug trafficking. The fight for hegemony among the gangs, and the effort by the government to quash cartel activity has increased violence. The cartels have become increasingly vicious, and the gangs permeate – and impact – the economy and business in the country.
Gang violence has turned Haiti into a failed state. The country, which is the poorest in the Western Hemisphere, is almost completely controlled by gangs, which have coopted the security forces and the government, allowing them full rein over the country. Businessmen report a complete lack of ability to move products, meet with potential customers, keep their employees safe, or conduct any kind of business.
While these countries are most often cited for violence, the rest of the region is also experiencing increasing crime rates. Already this year, the Department of State has cautioned visitors about visiting the Bahamas and Jamaica, after each country suffered from unusually high murder rates. The Bahamas saw 18 murders in January, and Jamaica’s warning came after 36 murders the same month.
Chile, historically one of the least dangerous countries in the region, has reported a 32% increase in murders, rapes, and gun violence. Uruguay, also considered safe and stable, has become the latest stop for drug traffickers, and has reported a 25% increase in murders in 2023.
Outside of Russia and Ukraine, Europe is largely considered safe for both business and pleasure.
However, there are some disturbing trends in that region as well.
Italy continues to house both the infamous Cosa Nostra in Sicily and ‘Ndrangheta of Calabria. ‘Ndrangheta controls approximately 97 percent of the cocaine trade in Europe, according to Italy’s anti-drug unit, through the Port of Gioia Tauro, which it controls. Organized crime in Italy recently benefitted from the refugee crisis, which increased human smuggling by the groups.
Even traditionally calm Sweden is experiencing an upsurge of violence. Sweden has a history of gang violence, and statistics from 2023 suggest that violence is increasing. The country reported 290 shootings, 400 arrests for firearms charges, and 100 arrests for crimes related to explosives.
Additionally, the Ukraine war is also contributing to higher criminal activity in border areas, which could spread as the economic devastation and refugee crisis continues.
Poverty, corruption, civil war, porous borders, terrorism, gangs, and drug trafficking have impacted several African countries.
The US Department of State advises against any travel to Burkina Faso.
The advisory notes, “Terrorist groups continue plotting attacks in Burkina Faso. Terrorists may conduct attacks anywhere with little or no warning. Targets could include hotels, restaurants, police stations, customs offices, areas at or near mining sites, places of worship, military posts, and schools.
Kidnapping and hostage taking is a threat throughout the country. On May 10, 2019 a hostage rescue operation freed four international hostages that had been kidnapped in Burkina Faso and in neighboring Benin.
The Government of Burkina Faso has maintained a state of emergency in the entire East and Sahel regions, the provinces of Kossi and Sourou in the Boucle de Mouhoun region, the province of Kenedougou in the Hauts Bassins region, the province of Loroum in the North region, and the province of Koulpelogo in the Center-East region.”
Chad is saddled with poverty, corruption, and terrorism. Boko Haram, an Islamic terrorist group, engages in a wide variety of criminal activities including property attacks, smuggling, kidnapping, extortion, and homicide.
Heavy, unchecked drug trafficking has made Guinea-Bissau unstable and has “undermined governance” in the country. Essentially, there are no checks on gang activity in the country.
Cameroon, Guinea, Mali, Ethiopia, and the Central African Republic are also experiencing high crime rates with little government control.
Middle East and North Africa
The region is fraught with terrorism, poverty, civil war, violence, and institutions unprepared to – or uninterested in – addressing the problems.
That could increase with the Israel – Hamas war, as regional players become more involved.
Afghanistan is often-cited as one of the most dangerous countries in the region. Political instability, years of conflict, poverty, porous borders, and high terrorist activity make Afghanistan extremely dangerous. The country is also home to drug traffickers and mercenaries trafficking guns across the region.
Yemen is off-limits to US tourists because of “terrorism, civil unrest, crime, health risks, kidnapping, armed conflict, and landmines.” The United States closed its Embassy in 2015, and has not re-opened due to the humanitarian crisis, the ongoing civil war, and high criminal activity. The country is facing a devastating food shortage, and the Israel-Hamas war has re-ignited the conflict and threatened additional criminal activities.
Almost every country in the region carries a high risk, including Yemen, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, South Sudan, and Syria.
Crime in Pakistan is fueled by the drug trade and terrorist activities. Terrorists in Pakistan – including Taliban groups that easily cross between Afghanistan and Pakistan – fund their activities with all types of criminal activities. Heroin produced in Afghanistan transits Pakistan and goes through small ports to the rest of the world.
Papua New Guinea suffers from a myriad of criminal issues. There are a large number of armed gangs, some motivated by tribal conflict and some are thugs without other motivation. After tribal gangs killed 70 people last August, the government announced it would use lethal force to stop the violence, but it has failed to have any impact. The country continues to experience high rates of robbery, assault, murder, rape, and kidnapping.
Arm Yourself with Knowledge
Every region, every country, every city has some level of crime and risk. Understanding that risk and taking action to protect yourself is critical to maintaining operations.
Ignoring the danger, or listening to uninformed sources who “know all about that country” can lead to serious disruptions that could be avoided with objective, informed intelligence to help you make the right decisions and to identify escalating criminal trends that require a pivot or an evacuation.