Monthly Risk Spotlight: March 2024


Gangs and Violence Increase Across the Americas
Organized and powerful gangs have been a rising issue across the Americas, with large-scale gang-related violence in 2024 particularly pronounced in both Ecuador and Haiti. This is in addition to the continued increase of organized criminal groups in Mexico, Nicaragua, and Colombia, though the problem is acute in other countries as well. Organized crime operates as for-profit enterprises that carry out illicit activities. Although most illicit economies have been directly involved in the smuggling of drugs and illegal firearms, the more concerning trend in recent years is the power gangs have to challenge the State monopoly on power.

Gangs across the Americas participate in several illegal activities ranging from drugs, gambling, narcotics, prostitution, gun and human smuggling, and protection rackets to raise funds. Consequently, to these illegal activities, the government attempts to employ law enforcement to battle the gangs in order to break up their operations and thus prevent the flow of illegal goods throughout the economy.

In recent years, gangs have been operating in much wider international markets, which has in turn enabled the groups to fund the acquisition of heavy weapons. In Ecuador, a nation that has typically been considered one of the safest countries in South America, gang strengths reached a point in which gangs were functionally running the prisons across Ecuador. More worrisome, when Ecuador issued a state of emergency in response to the outbreak of Jose Adolfo Macias “Fito” from Ecuador’s prison, the gangs unleashed a series of attacks across the country to sow fear into the Ecuadorian public and as a challenge to the government.

Gangs have also been wielding chaos and violence in Haiti, with major consequences for the safety and well-being of its citizens. Arguably, the rise of gangs in Haiti has much more to do with a failed, corrupt, and fractured political elite that has used different gangs within the country to support their political ambitions. However, with the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, gangs in Haiti have been able to hold more territory than the government of Haiti. These gangs operate by threatening, kidnapping, murdering, and extorting the people in a much more public and concerning manner than has been witnessed previously.

To tackle the power of such groups, there are policies governments across the Americas have been able to employ or are planning to integrate into their laws. In Colombia, violent crackdowns on gangs by the police and armed forces have been able to weaken and ultimately destroy large portions of the illicit trades that kept these gangs operational. In El Salvador, the government has consciously ceded human rights protections for its citizens to crack down on gangs using the police and military without having to go through the court system.

Ultimately, the gang-related issues across the Americas do not have a simple solution. Some point to the United States (U.S.) and developed nations, who are believed to have a large appetite for the illegal drugs that fund and fuel the power of the gangs. Others may point to local political leaders to improve the local economies so that civilians are not lured into a life of crime and instead work productively within legal markets. The problem remains acute; and as such, constituents are reminded to take necessary risk mitigation strategies if traveling or operating in the region.


Istanbul’s Seismic Vulnerability following the 2023 Earthquakes
One year after the devastating earthquakes that struck Türkiye in 2023, the country continues to grapple with the aftermath, striving for recovery and resilience, amidst ongoing challenges. The earthquakes, which hit several provinces including Kahramanmaraş, Gazientep, and Hatay, resulted in significant loss of life, widespread destruction of infrastructure, and left thousands homeless. Following last year’s earthquakes, one of the most pressing concerns is the looming threat to Istanbul (Istanbul province), Türkiye’s largest city, from potential future seismic events.

At current, Istanbul has a population of 15 million and is situated close to the North Anatolian fault, a seismic hotspot where experts predict a major earthquake could occur within the next 70 years. Estimates suggest that a quake of magnitude 7.0 or stronger could lead to catastrophic consequences for the city, with projections indicating the potential destruction of around 90,000 buildings and displacement of 4.5 million people, posing a significant risk to infrastructure and public safety.

The seismic vulnerability of Istanbul stems from the city’s proximity to fault lines, particularly the North Anatolian Fault, which passes within 12 miles (20 kms) of the city center. While efforts have been made to modernize building codes and enhance earthquake preparedness, older structures in the city remain highly vulnerable to seismic activity. The lack of earthquake-resistant features in these buildings, such as reinforced concrete or column bracing, raises concerns about their ability to withstand strong tremors, potentially leading to widespread collapse and loss of life. Despite ongoing efforts to assess and mitigate seismic risks, significant challenges persist in retrofitting older buildings to meet modern safety standards. Retrofitting thousands of structurally deficient buildings would incur substantial costs and logistical challenges, particularly considering the poor condition of many of these structures. As a result, there is a growing recognition of the need for incentives to encourage building owners to invest in seismic retrofitting or relocate to safer accommodations.

In response to the seismic threat facing Istanbul, city officials have implemented a comprehensive disaster preparedness plan aimed at enhancing the city’s resilience to earthquakes. This plan includes provisions for increased funding for disaster preparedness programs, establishment of emergency response points, and the implementation of a rapid scanning system to assess the structural integrity of buildings. Building evaluations, particularly for properties built before the year 2000, when stricter earthquake regulations were introduced, have become a priority, with a significant number of buildings identified as being at high risk of collapse. Correspondingly, efforts are aimed at ensuring adequate responses.

The heightened awareness of Istanbul’s seismic vulnerability underscores the importance of proactive measures to mitigate risks and safeguard the city’s population and infrastructure. Investments in resilient infrastructure, strict enforcement of building codes, and community engagement initiatives are important components of a comprehensive strategy to enhance earthquake preparedness and resilience. By prioritizing seismic safety measures and implementing proactive policies, authorities can mitigate the potential impact of future earthquakes in Istanbul and ensure the well-being of its residents and visitors in the face of seismic hazards. Constituents are reminded to always ensure that accommodations and areas of operations have adequate risk mitigation measures in place.


Illegal Arms Distribution Exacerbates Tribal Violence in Papua New Guinea
Papua New Guinea (PNG) faces an alarming surge in tribal violence, fueled significantly by the proliferation of illegal firearms. A recent clash in Enga Province, involving over a dozen tribal groups, illustrates this trend with a significant number of fatalities reported. Violence, once characterized by traditional weapons and respecting ancient rules of engagement, has transformed with the introduction of high-powered firearms.

The shift to modern weaponry has not only increased the lethality of conflicts but also the frequency and intensity. Firearms, some of which are sophisticated and imported from overseas, are now commonly utilized in such tribal disputes. The involvement of hired fighters, or mercenaries, utilizing these weapons for monetary gain, exacerbates the situation further, indicating a departure from traditional tribal conflict resolutions.

PNG, a country with a rich cultural tapestry and linguistic diversity, now grapples with the challenges posed by these illegal arms. The escalation of violence is concerning, with reports indicating a significant rise in the death toll over recent years. The availability of firearms, including those leaked from state and security forces’ stocks, has transformed the nature of tribal warfare, making them more deadly and complex.

Efforts by the PNG government and calls for international assistance highlight the critical need for a comprehensive approach to address this crisis. Initiatives such as lockdowns in affected provinces and security agreements aimed at bolstering the capacity of PNG’s police force underscore the urgency of the situation. However, the continued flow of illegal arms and the challenges of enforcing effective control measures pose significant obstacles.

The future of PNG in this context appears precarious. A peaceful resolution hinges on the successful curtailment of illegal arms distribution and the restoration of traditional conflict resolution mechanisms. Strengthening law enforcement, enhancing socio-economic development, and fostering community engagement are crucial steps toward mitigating the violence and paving the way for stability and peace.

As PNG stands at this critical juncture, the international community’s role in providing support and facilitating dialogue cannot be overstated. The path to peace requires concerted efforts from all stakeholders, aiming to address the root causes of the violence and ensure a secure, prosperous future for PNG. Be reminded that any travel to PNG requires proper planning and preparation.


Guinea’s Military Dissolves Government
On February 19, military leadership in Guinea announced that they had dissolved the government and would begin the process of appointing a new one. The move was not considered a coup d’état as the country has been ruled by a military junta since former President Alpha Conde was ousted in September 2021 and the transitional civilian government has been dissolved. It was announced in the immediate aftermath of the dissolution that day-to-day government operations would continue under the deputy secretary generals of their respective departments. No reason for the dissolution was provided at the time of the announcement.

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the primary economic and political bloc of the region, had been pushing hard for the restoration of civilian rule in Guinea prior to the dissolution. The junta had previously agreed on a 24-month transition period with ECOWAS in October 2022; however, elections are not scheduled to take place until 2025. The dissolution highlighted growing dissatisfaction with junta leader Colonel Mamadi Doumbouya who was highly critical of President Conde’s administration for broken promises but has come to be seen as not providing a better way forward since seizing power.

Later in mid-February, following the government’s dissolution, the Guinean Trade Union Movement called for an indefinite general strike to be held across all sectors in response to ongoing hardships. On February 26, tensions escalated further when the national strike was launched, shutting down businesses throughout the country and causing significant disruptions to the mining sector. Striking workers’ demands included increasing wages from an agreement made in November 2023, lifting internet restrictions, lowering food prices, and the release of a jailed union leader.

On February 26, hospital sources confirmed two young men were killed during clashes in the capital of Conakry. With the ongoing general strike giving way to protests, officials moved to crack down on any demonstrations being held during the general strike, particularly within Conakry. No response was made by government officials following the reports of the two casualties during the protest. On February 27, former opposition leader Mamadou Oury Bah was proclaimed the new prime minister via a decree broadcast on national television. Prime Minister Bah has been a well-known figure in Guinean politics dating back to the early 1990s. After being cast out of his UFDG opposition party, he became controversial for his support of the military junta.

On February 28, the Guinean Trade Union Movement suspended the strike following the release of the detained union leader and urged member unions to resume negotiating with the government regarding other grievances.

The clashes and deaths occurring during the general strike are not uncommon. The military junta has a known history of heavy-handed responses to anti-government demonstrations since their takeover in September 2021, with these crackdown efforts often turning violent. Despite the strike being suspended and the appointment of a new prime minister, the likelihood of tensions leading up to the 2025 election is high. Public satisfaction with the military junta and transitional government is not likely to improve. Depending on the outcome of trade unions negotiations with the government, the possibility remains for widespread labor strikes to resume across multiple sectors. The resumption of strikes also carries the risk of further protests and clashes and these should always be avoided as a routine safety precaution.


Tensions Rise Between Russia and the Baltic Nations
February 2024 witnessed diplomatic and societal tensions rise between Russia and the Baltic Nations of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Formerly under soviet rule, the Baltic Nations have continually faced threats from Russia, ranging from economic coercion, propaganda in society, and cyber threats. Notably, the Baltic nations are a part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO); therefore, it is extremely unlikely that Russia would directly attack the nations.

Taking into account the historical significance of the region as well as the present safeguards is very important for society and business operations in the region. Additionally, taking note and understanding recent increases in diplomatic tensions and threats to the Baltics provides further understanding of potential threats.

On February 20, ten people in Estonia were arrested for suspected espionage activities on behalf of the Russian government. The suspects have been accused of committing or planning sabotage, engaging in propaganda dissemination, and attempting to incite misinformation and societal fear in the country through illicit means and dubious manners.
Not only does this highlight the threat of sabotage and propaganda but it also introduces distrust in society that aims to cut at social stability. Most often, distrust in society will present itself at times of governmental transition in the form of civil unrest or successful propaganda movements that could influence political outcomes.

On February 13, representatives from the Russian Foreign Ministry announced that Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas, Estonian State Secretary Tiamar Peterkop, and Lithuanian Culture Minister Simonas Kairys have been added to the Russian government’s ‘wanted list’. The decision was reportedly prompted due to several Baltic countries, including Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, removing numerous Soviet-era monuments within their respective countries. A more likely reason is that the Baltic Nations have increased funding and diplomatic support for Ukraine amidst Russian’s continual invasion. A decision such as this from the Russian government alludes to potential risks to the Baltic Nations and could further include attempts at destabilizing the society or carrying out cybersecurity attacks.

Tensions are also increasing between the Baltic Nations and allies of Russia, as Lithuania plans to seal two of its six checkpoints with Belarus. The specific checkpoints are the Lavoriskes and Raigardas checkpoints, though additional checkpoints will also likely be closed. The Lithuanian Interior Minister, Ange Bilotaite, told reporters that these closures were prompted due to the threat of Belarus being leveraged as a proxy for Russia’s activities against the Baltic country. The tensions between Belarus and bordering NATO nations have been gradually growing after hundreds of Russia’s Wagner Mercenaries were housed in Belarus, which grew the concern of conflict near NATO Nations. Additionally, Belarus has been continually accused of pushing Middle Eastern and African Migrants into Europe.

Overall disruptions in the region can affect business operations as well as increased difficulty in navigating the region. The current disruptions and risks to the Baltic Nations are not wide-scale deterrents to society or business, however, monitoring these increased tensions is key to assessing when deterrents may occur.

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