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Insidious: Gang rivalries fuel violence in current and emerging hotspots | Travel Security Special Edition 2024

While organised crime is often thought to occur on the fringes of society, a combination of shifting trafficking routes, migration, and socio-economic challenges are increasingly facilitating gang rivalries that have driven brazen, often indiscriminate violence in tourist hubs and major urban centres, writes Erin Drake.

Several countries have experienced an uptick in gang violence in 2023, as criminal groups fragment, expand, and jostle for territorial control amid a rise in global demand for cocaine. Despite efforts by various governments to crack down on points of entry, gangs have simply sought alternative routes and more permissive operating environments. Exacerbating these dynamics is the fact that, since the Covid-19 pandemic, many governments have faced intensifying domestic and geopolitical pressures, including cost-of-living crises, migration due to regional conflict and instability, and endemic corruption, challenging law enforcement’s ability to adapt to shifting criminal landscapes. While not a new predicament, these factors have enabled greater opportunities for organised crime to flourish, particularly in major port cities and travel hotspots. In the midst of these rivalries, civilians – including travellers – are becoming more vulnerable to indiscriminate violence.

Security crackdowns and gang rivalries breed violence

Traditional cocaine transit routes are shifting, creating new hotspots and stoking competition between gangs. Trafficking between Latin America and Europe has strengthened considerably in recent years as cartels diversify from the US market to expanding European markets. Belgium and the Netherlands, specifically, have become instrumental transit points in this supply chain, overtaking Spain and Portugal as the main entry points for cocaine from Latin America. In May 2023, INTERPOL’s Secretary General, Jürgen Stock, stated that this has been accompanied by a “corresponding rise in violent crime…of unprecedented scale.”

With European authorities escalating drug seizures at ports, rivalries have intensified as gangs vie to maintain control of trafficking and distribution networks – and civilians have not escaped the violence. Record cocaine seizures at Rotterdam Port have triggered a wave of retaliatory attacks as gangs scramble to reconfigure their operations and territory; over 50 explosions and arson attacks have hit homes and businesses across the city, as gangs have targeted relatives and friends of rival group members to settle scores. Meanwhile, in Antwerp Port, violent competition between drug gangs has escalated as they vie for market share through Europe’s second-largest cargo port, which has become a prominent smuggling hub. Violence has indiscriminately affected bystanders as gangs stage bombings, shootings and stabbings, with 70 incidents occurring between January and June 2023. The threat of bystander casualties will likely escalate in the coming year as security crackdowns continue.

Exploiting poverty and insecurity

With inflationary pressures driving higher living costs and increased poverty following the pandemic, already vulnerable communities have become increasingly exposed to criminal recruitment, especially among youth with limited opportunities for social or economic advancement. In some cases, this has driven an expansion in gangs’ size, capabilities, and appetite for market share.

In South Africa, structural inequality, poverty and exploitation by drug lords and corrupt spiritual leaders have enabled the formation and expansion of violent youth gangs in townships like Nyanga in Cape Town, and Inanda in Johannesburg. These areas see high concentrations of homicides, extortion, and violence, although assassinations occasionally extend to upmarket neighbourhoods frequented by tourists. Sweden has also experienced rising gang violence in recent years, but the latest surge in Uppsala and Stockholm in 2023, with regular bombings and shootings, have resulted in several casualties. Authorities attribute this surge to clashes between rival gangs that have intensified efforts to recruit youth from economically disadvantaged immigrant neighbourhoods to distribute product and fight over territory. Police indicate that 42 people have died in 290 shootings in 2023. Meanwhile in Marseille, France, unemployment and high living costs have also encouraged gang membership, and the city has seen a significant rise in homicides and assassinations stemming from a war between two rival local gangs amid Europe’s growing demand for cocaine. At least 44 people have been killed and 109 injured in associated violence, including indiscriminate shootings, since January 2023.

Leveraging regional instability and migration

In Latin America, a combination of El Salvador’s violent crackdown on gangs, a resurgence in violence between Colombian drug gangs, Haiti’s domestic insecurity, and wider regional economic struggles have caused migration to surge. Criminal groups have exploited overwhelmed security forces and vulnerable populations to smuggle drugs, weapons and people across porous borders, and increase their presence and operations along trafficking routes in the region. Members of El Salvador’s powerful street gangs have increased activities in Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico, while Brazilian, Mexican and Colombian gangs seize similar opportunities in Ecuador, Costa Rica and Chile, driving violent rivalries over extortion and trafficking networks.

Mexican cartels have leveraged migrant flows to facilitate human and drug trafficking into the US, regularly clashing over and abducting migrant communities, and targeting rival ‘polleros’ (coyotes) suspected of operating in cartels’ turf. This has prompted civilian deaths and kidnappings, including of US and other foreign tourists. In March 2023, four US nationals travelling in Mexico’s northern Tamaulipas State were abducted by cartel members who allegedly mistook them for rival smugglers, killing two victims. Travellers remain extremely vulnerable to threats of violence and kidnap in the coming year, particularly in cities bordering the US, which remain popular locations for medical tourism.

Crime hotspots

Mexico: Officials in Quintana Roo, Mexico, have warned of at least 28 ‘high-risk’ locations as cartel violence drives excessively high homicide rates and residual violence that has killed and injured bystanders and tourists.

Chile: Pressure on Brazilian and other gangs have prompted them to look to Chile’s generally unpopulated organised crime landscape for a foothold, escalating the threat of violence in the coming year.


Morocco: With Morocco an increasingly strategic transit point in the cocaine trade, the country’s powerful Mocro Mafia controls a large portion of Europe’s drug market and has been responsible for violence and assassinations of rivals, officials and journalists in the Maghreb and Europe.

Nigeria: Cult groups specialising in violence for hire have bolstered Nigeria’s organised crime landscape, becoming intermediaries for a range of violent activities like enforcing extortion and carrying out retaliatory kidnappings and assassinations.

South Africa: The prominent Capetonian Hard Livings gang has also infiltrated Durban, a growing cocaine transit hub, driving a spike in skirmishes and retaliatory shootings and kidnappings with local gangs.


Sweden: In Stockholm the government has requested assistance from its armed forces to support in combatting a rise in gang violence and assassinations that have killed bystanders.

Belgium: In January 2023, an 11-year-old girl was killed in her home in Antwerp during a retaliatory shooting as gang violence escalates.

France: On 10 September 2023, an inter-gang skirmish, in which shots were indiscriminately fired into nearby buildings in Marseille, killed a 24-year-old woman in her apartment.

Italy: In 2023, Rome experienced a wave of public mob-like assassination as mafia groups seek to fill a power vacuum left by security operations against their leaders.


Sydney has seen a spike in violence, kidnappings and assassinations – including in public spaces – amid record seizures of cocaine and methamphetamines in 2023. Adelaide has become subject to skirmishes between Sudanese gangs in northern and western suburbs.


Corruption and a lack of resources continues to render governments and police ill-equipped to curb persistent trafficking and gang violence. Criminal groups will continue to expand into ports and cities, forming rivalries and alliances, and triggering competition for turf. Insecurity, unemployment, and high living costs will also continue to push impoverished youth and vulnerable migrant communities to engage with gangs for security, driving the potential for intensified violence in existing and new hotspots the coming year. Governments will need to bolster regional and international cooperation to address this transnational challenge, which threatens to draw violent consequences of organised crime further and more frequently into tourist hotspots and commercial centres.

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