Pablo Zeballos: "Organised crime is going through a deep transformation"

The rapid expansion of the Tren de Aragua into previously peaceful countries like Chile has raised many questions about the future of organised crime in Latin America, the world's most violent region, and the best ways to tackle it. A former police officer and researcher explains that better diagnosis of the problems is key.


TEXT: Josefina Salomón  Illustration: Sergio Ortiz Borbolla 

After seeing the impact of crime first hand working as a police officer and in intelligence in Chile for 20 years, Pablo Zeballos started to focus on investigating transnational criminal organisations. He says he has never seen a time of more accelerated transformations in Latin America, where criminal organisations, favoured by the lack of coordination between governments, are taking over the role of States. 

Josefina Salomón (JS) In your analysis, you talk about a new stage in the evolution of organised crime in Latin America.

Pablo Zeballos (PZ): The evolution of organised crime has a very marked first stage, which is the emergence of the Medellín cartel, where criminal structures challenge the state, they go to war with the state. Subsequently, the Cali cartel, fragmented by the Mexican cartels, realised that the war against the state was not good for business and that, in reality, the important thing was to “buy” the state, to corrupt it. Then there is a third stage where States start to be completely criminalised. Now we are in a fourth criminal wave where territorial control is so strong in some areas that for some weak governments criminal organisations are the most reliable partner and ally they can have to stay in power, to regulate violence. These are models that we have observed for quite some time in Brazil, for example, with the PCC (First Capital Command) in São Paulo and in some countries such as El Salvador. 

JS: What do these weaker states look like? 

PZ: Weak states are those that exist in very divided societies, where there is little tolerance for dialogue and where the proposals have no logic, because although some may sound good to people who want peace, many are impracticable. How many times have we heard proposals to build more prisons, close borders, expel all migrants? These are not proposals that can be put into practice, so they generate expectations in the population that cannot be met and end up generating a great level of distrust of the political system which, in turn, opens up opportunities for organised crime itself to say: “Look, the only ones who can regulate violence is us. Negotiate with us”. And what does a state offer to negotiate? It offers what has never been offered in the history of organised crime: the entire state apparatus, the entire banking system, everything.

JS: What is the role of prisons in this scenario? 

PZ: Prisons are the engine, the incubator of criminal organisations in Latin America. In nearly every country in Latin America governments try to satisfy this need for greater security by putting a lot of people in prison but, without criminal segregation, what they are doing is adding people to the larger gangs’ recruitment poll. The only way to destroy criminal structures is to create prisons that encourage, for example, repentance or help those who are trying to get out of these criminal groups.

I think there is another common factor which is the corruption of the prison guards and the lack of interest in them. Although the best intelligence could come from there, today there is a big short-circuit between the prison service and the security forces. I have the impression that the prison services in Latin America are seen as a kind of little brother by the police agencies, but given that the organisations are developed in prisons, this is something that needs to be changed.

JS: Chile, which for many years was a relatively secondary country on the regional criminal map is now taking on a much more prominent role, how did this come about?

PZ: I think the big problem we’ve had in Latin America is that we have undervalued our own crime, thinking that our criminals are not organised crime. But if there is something we can now see in Uruguay, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Peru, Chile and what will probably begin to happen in the northwest of Argentina very soon, is that local crime is also undergoing a process of change, of transformation. 

Local criminals today understand that they have to rethink the way they operate or they will be eaten by bigger fish. They know they need to show off and the best way to do that is with violence.

I think Chile is very surprised by this rapid influx of organised crime and although it is reacting to it, it has had little time to understand it, so I think the efforts are remarkable, but we will have to see what the impact of these laws and actions are.

JS: Where do you see this rapid transformation in Chile? 

PZ: Part of Chile’s criminal transformation has to do with a very strong phenomenon, which is occurring across Latin America, but which did not exist in Chile, which is that of exhibition. In the past, criminals tried to prevent anyone from knowing that they were criminals. What we are seeing today with the monoliths, with the narco funerals, is the pride of having a connection. 

This generates a very complex phenomenon, the formation of identity-based gangs. These are the strongest within the criminal structures. When you feel that you are part of an identity gang and you start to conform to it, it has entry codes, submission codes, but at the same time you think that everyone belongs to you. And that is a big problem. Because the question you have to ask yourself at the end of the day is: How do I convince a 12 year old boy who lives in a marginal population that this narco who is 18 and who drives around in a new car, with gold jewellery, who wears Jordan shoes, is not the model to follow, but that the model to follow is at school? 

JS: Boric’s government has taken many actions, from enacting new laws to investing millions of dollars to combat organised crime. How do you evaluate what has been done and what remains to be done?

PZ: I think Chile is very surprised by this rapid influx of organised crime and although it is reacting to it, it has had little time to understand it, so I think the efforts are remarkable, but we will have to see what the impact of these laws and actions are. 

A decrease in homicides in a country, for example, does not necessarily mean that violence has decreased, that we are better off. Criminal organisations, when they have achieved their objective of taking control of territory and no longer need to fight either the state or other criminal organisations, tend to quickly lower their level of violence, and normally governments feel that they have achieved a great battle against organised crime, but in reality what has happened is that the criminal organisation has become firmly established. 

JS: It would seem that Boric is facing a strong dilemma regarding the kind of policies to implement that fight crime but with an approach that does not go against his political ideals. There are currently many eyes on Chile.

PZ: We are experiencing a complex criminal transformation in the region and, as such, what is needed are complex solutions. But in order to know what measures to take, you first need to understand what you are dealing with. Each country has particularities, but one of the things all countries in Latin America have in common is that this transnational organised crime learns and adapts very quickly. Look at the Tren de Aragua, it expanded from Venezuela to Chile through the “trochas”, linking up with local organisations and thus learning from Colombian, Bolivian, Peruvian, Argentinean and Chilean criminality. Today they know more about criminality than any criminal expert. They know codes, they know words, they know phrases, they know alliances, they know people.

So, President Boric or any president in the region can see crime as a phenomenon of its own, but the truth is that to understand it, you have to understand that organised crime is going to affect all types of government equally, it knows that it can become a parallel power that can have the capacity to negotiate with any government. Organised crime is polyamorous, it doesn’t care who it has relationships with, or who it falls in love with, or who it apologises to. Everything is allowed, they are ideologically agnostic.

JS: What is the solution? 

PZ: For me, the solution is not to put the military on the streets or to enact more laws. I think the solution is to work on a shared, multidisciplinary diagnosis, where academia, field researchers, the police, the gendarmes, all have something to say in order to come up with a diagnosis of the state of crime. But not only based on what is happening in our country, but also compared to other countries that have moved towards this, understanding that in each, they have their own logic.