Sicariato and Latin American Illicit Orders: A Research Imperative

Sicariato and Latin American Illicit Orders: A Research Imperative

24 May, 2023

Over the last decade, the proliferation of illicit orders in many Latin American cities has promoted the emergence of parallel punishment systems. These systems – I term ‘Sicariato’ – have become a regular conflict resolution mechanism between criminal and non-criminal actors. This piece draws from topics explored in depth in my thesis, ‘Criminal Punishment Systems in Latin America Illicit Orders’. 

Sicariato as a Mechanism of Conflict Resolution

Criminal violence is often considered one of the main public security concerns faced by Latin American countries since the return to democracy. In fact, over the last three decades, and unlike other regions of the world where homicide rates have remained relatively stable, lethal violence in Latin America has increased exponentially.

While the driving forces behind this trend respond to multi-causal dynamics, it is argued that organised crime, interpersonal violence, state crime, high levels of political corruption and misguided state policies aimed at stemming violence are among the main factors contributing to the epidemic of criminal violence – particularly in deprived urban areas. Furthermore, in the absence of the state, disruptive actors imposed criminal governance as an alternative, using extreme violence as a regulator of social order. These new forms of illicit orders created new dispute resolution mechanisms, often used to legitimise power over rivals and to deter movements from local communities. These mechanisms, of course, are characterised by the use of extreme violence.

Against this background, I argue that Sicariato emerged in this context of criminal governance or state crime as a kind of “criminal” punishment system to resolve conflicts between non-state actors – usually criminal organisations. This means, given the absence of formal law enforcement structures in the criminal underworld, the Sicariato represents a mechanism for outsourcing death where an intermediary acts on behalf of a criminal or non-criminal actor with the aim of eliminating rivals and competitors.

Country Trends in Sicariato Justice

In South America, Sicariato forms part of everyday life in many cities where public security has been transformed by the proliferation of illicit orders. Such is the case of Ciudad del Este, Paraguay. According to a blog article written by Jorge Rolon Luna for the Paraguayan website Terere Complice, “The disproportionate growth of contract killings in Paraguay is most likely related to the country’s growing role in the international drug trafficking scheme, above all due to the prominence of cocaine and its importance for criminal groups in Paraguay”.

To a lesser extent, Argentina and Uruguay have seen changing patterns of criminal violence amid the rise of Sicariato as a conflict resolution mechanism between rival groups. In the first case, although the phenomenon is by no means new, since 2008 there has been a proliferation of cases of Sicariato in Córdoba and Misiones. In the case of Brazil, super-power criminal organisation, the First Command of the Capital (PCC), has not only adopted the practice of Sicariato as a rite of passage, but also made it an extraterritorial business.

Nevertheless, this widespread portrayal of Sicariato as something that only occurs among organised crime actors  is a misguided and limiting assumption, ignoring the many instances of actors from the licit world interacting with criminal groups to commit illegal acts. This collusion take place in the field of certain food industries and transnational environmental crimes, where contract killers are used as a means of intimidation, internal displacement or elimination of community members and indigenous leaders defending lands. In all these scenarios, I argue, Sicariato plays the role of ‘social cleansing’.

Dissagregating the Sicariato Narrative

Most literature on Latin American criminal politics tends to regard the phenomenon of Sicariato in very different ways, considering it as a social fact, a mercantilisation of the death, a complex border industry or as a  (premeditated) homicide predominantly linked to the sphere of organised crime. From a sociological and anthropological perspective, the figure of the sicario emerges in criminal ecologies as one who provides justice, which in terms of criminal governance is synonymous with revenge. In this sense, and following the theory of narratives, the hitman – as popularized in narco-culture – plays the role of an avenger whose degree of bravery and amorality in committing a crime determines his place in a criminal organisation. This is a very important point, since most contract killers are recruited from marginalized communities, being a sicario is not only a paid job, but also a sociological identity factor.

With a disaggregated understanding of Sicariato, we can make mention of organisational models. I argue that the structure of the Sicariato throughout the region, whether as an independent agency or as an intermediary within a criminal organisation, corresponds to different organisational models, each determined by different cultural and symbolic elements of which we know little. In this sense, we know that recruitment generally takes place in deprived urban centres and that many sicarios come from street gangs or even paramilitary groups with some experience in the use of weapons. But we know little about the role of women as contract killers in this highly masculinised world. Finally, we know that Sicariato often plays the role of an independent agency that manages the service of outsourcing death for profit. This is the case, for example, with, which is considered the armed wing of the Mexican Gulf Cartel, or Grupo de las Flacas, which is composed entirely of women. However, our knowledge of their internal structure, recruitment, victim profiles, organisational culture, and division of labour, is still limited.

A Guide for Future Research

The increasing number of Sicariato cases in Latin America is one of the most complex public security problems in the region. In this context, and with the aim of contributing to the debate, let us some ideas and questions that could serve as guiding questions for future research on contract killings in Latin America.

  • Do contract killings have political significance in addition to a criminal motive? How do political elites respond to contract killings?
  • Why are more and more non-criminal actors using this mechanism to resolve conflicts in an illicit context?
  • What is the influence of environmental and socio-political factors on the increase in contract killings?
  • How can the seasonality of the phenomenon be explained?
  • When does a criminal organisation decide to outsource murders?
  • It is important to explore the motivations of the contract killer. In this sense, even if we define it as murder for profit, we know little about the motivations and cost-benefit calculations that hitmen make when it comes to becoming hitmen.
  • The Sicariato as a sociological phenomenon of identity.
  • How can the path of women from victim to perpetrator be explained? What role do female hitmen play in an inherently masculinized criminal organisation? Is there a femininity to female hitmen?
  • What do the recruitment profiles of hitmen look like? What do their potential victims look like?
  • What roles do hitmen have within a criminal organisation? Are there hierarchies?

These ideas and questions are far from exhaustive, but we consider them some of many that can guide us in future research on this topic.

Ludmila A. Quirós is a Political Science and International Relations researcher. Member of the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime. Mc in International Relations and Global Security (Università La Sapienza).

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of RUSI or any other institution.

Main Image Credit: Sicario Representation via Wikicommons.

Ludmila Quirós

Ludmila Quirós

Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime

Ludmila Quirós is an International Relations Researcher, specialized in Security, Organised Crime, Migrant Smuggling, Human…

Read more