Throughout the developing world, the post-Cold War era has seen the emergence of increasingly powerful and violent criminal organizations, often referred to as "third-generation gangs." These groups have exploited the major international trends of the past 20 years -- including economic and financial integration, innovations in communication technology, the prevalence of weak and failed states, and a thriving global arms trade -- to seize control over a myriad of illicit commercial networks. They now use violence and corruption to undermine the governments that oppose them.
Latin America has proven particularly vulnerable to this phenomenon. The region has porous borders and numerous illegal markets, and is awash with guns -- all factors conducive to organized crime. Corruption is endemic, and state institutions are weak. Widespread poverty and social alienation ensure the gangs a steady supply of young recruits. Densely packed urban slums give them near-impenetrable havens in which to operate. Finally, the deportation of tens of thousands of gang members from the United States over the past 15 years has overwhelmed local law enforcement systems -- especially in Central America and, in particular, El Salvador and Guatemala.
As a result, Latin America is now home to some of the world's most fearsome third-generation gangs. Central American maras such as MS-13 and M-18 have tens of thousands of members spread across several countries. The First Capital Command (PCC) of Sao Paulo, with perhaps 100,000 members, dominates the slums and prisons of South America's largest city and maintains alliances with mafia groups throughout South America. In Mexico, the drug trade has given rise to groups like Los Zetas, a relatively small organization that has nonetheless carved out lucrative trafficking and distribution networks, while cultivating relations with gangs in Central America and the U.S..