This is a source for analysis, interviews, and commentary on security in Latin America. Herein you will find rumors, the results of off the record interviews, and information you'll not find in international or United States news media.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Colombia's FARC Moves to Consolidate Control

One of the largest mass-kidnappings in Colombian history turned out to be an exaggeration. The governor of Colombia’s Choco department, claimed the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, also known as the FARC, had kidnapped 170 rural workers on 13 July. Ten more were reported killed. Colombian president Alvaro Uribe deployed a mobile battalion of the Colombian military, whose commander immediately refuted the reports, claiming that no more than 35 rural workers actually had been kidnapped.

The exaggeration of a very real event may reveal the level of desperation some Colombian governors feel as they await their share of the promised deployment of 40,000 rural police officers. Such an incident in one of Colombia’s most isolated outposts also verifies that security gaps are growing all over Colombia. Slow implementation of political promises and the very real absence of the paramilitaries widen these gaps every day. But that is to be expected.

The FARC has not captured all areas left available by the paramilitaries, but it has moved to take over strategically important areas. Choco is at the top of the list.

The department of Choco has been of strategic importance to both the FARC and the paramilitaries as long as both groups have been involved in the drug trade. Colombia shares some 266 kilometers of a border with Panama, all of which is in the Choco department. This area is also the shortest distance from the Pacific to the Caribbean and is replete with river systems that facilitate transport.

Riosucio is a small town on the Truando River, part of a fluvial system that stretches from the mountains in north-central Choco to the Caribbean. This area is in the center of the current conflict between the 57th FARC Front and a paramilitary unit due to disarm at any time, according to Colombian reports.

The FARC is already moving in. They have taken hostages and even killed those who they thought were paramilitary sympathizers. The events of 13 July point out that the FARC is moving in to take over as much of the northern portion of the Choco department as possible, despite any plans the Colombian government has for increased rural security.

Over the duration of his first administration, President Uribe went on the offensive, seeking out conflict with the FARC. Since 2003, Uribe has installed 84 new rural police substations. He oversaw the development of seven new military brigades and 54 mobile squadrons. He started the so-called “public forces,” empowering citizens to join a sweeping intelligence network. His capstone offensive, called “Plan Patriota,” continues to take the fight to the FARC strongholds in southern Colombia.

Uribe’s next move, his promised 40,000 rural police, will be even more invasive into FARC satellite territory. His government will install 400 new substations, according to the Colombian daily El Tiempo. Half of the rural police, some 20,000 in number, will be agents with anti-guerrilla training. A total of 15 anti-terrorist special forces will be deployed in Colombian cities.

Yet for all the muscle, Uribe has put into his so-called Democratic Security program, the FARC continues to thrive, all but securing a corridor to Ecuador by controlling the departments of Putamayo and Narino. Through this corridor the FARC receives supplies and its members escape into Ecuadorian territory when chased by the Colombian military.

The FARC is currently consolidating control of Aruca, a Colombian department that shares a border with Venezuela. Many analysts believe control of this area will open a significant corridor for export of cocaine through Venezuela, one facilitated by the Venezuelan National Guard.

The Dog’s Head area, where the Colombian department of Vaupes meets the Brazilian Amazon, has been a long-time FARC strong hold. Neither Brazilian nor Colombian authorities have managed to stymie the number of clandestine airstrips in this area, nor the flow of trade between Brazilian organized crime, based in Rio de Janeiro, and the FARC. The packages used to transport 250 kilograms of pure cocaine, interdicted outside Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in mid-July, bore the distinct FARC signature. This bust indicates that the old alliance between the Brazilian Fernando Beira-Mar and the FARC, propagated by transport routes used in the Amazons, is alive and well.

Colombia’s Black River eventually joins with the Amazon River’s upstream network in Brazil. It flows south through the Colombian department of Amazonas to the town of Leticia, into Tabatinga, Brazil. Tabatinga is a known meeting place where FARC operatives hand over cocaine, and Brazilian criminals deliver weapons and ammunition.

By most counts, it appears that Uribe’s security initiatives have worked well to secure the center of Colombia, the core areas where Colombians live and work, yet the rest of the country, the perimeter, in particular, remains ungoverned. Uribe may have succeeded in delivering security to many Colombians, but he has done very little to actually put a dent in the FARC’s wide spectrum of illicit activity.

It is quite possible that in the next year the FARC will have taken complete control of trafficking corridors through Panama, Ecuador, Venezuela and Brazil. If the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) continue to disarm, as planned, there will be relatively little resistance, by way of irregular security units, in Colombia’s perimeter areas.

The recent incident in Choco is just one more bullet point on a long list of upcoming conflicts.

Uribe’s plan to install another 40,000 rural police around the country is a great idea. It has raised the hopes of governors. But one, in particular, seems to have become a bit more nervous. His outcry of 170 kidnap victims got the world’s attention. Yet there was little anyone could do. The FARC made its presence known, and the addition of one rural police substation in Riosucio would not have made a difference...

You will find the audio link here.

Sam Logan is an investigative journalist who has reported on security, energy, politics, economics, organized crime, terrorism, and black markets in Latin America since 1999. He is currently completing his work on “Nice Guys Die First,” a forthcoming non-fiction narrative about organized crime in Brazil.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Post-World Cup Regional Roundup

As always, you may listen to this podcast here.

For today’s show I would like to share with you a basket of developments around the region from Mexico to Argentina, starting north and working my way south.

We are into the second week after Mexico’s July 2 elections and still presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador contests the results. He trailed Mexican president-elect Felipe Calderon by one-half point in the first count of votes. Obredor has stated publicly that Mexicans will take to the streets unless he’s satisfied with a recount.

Today, the 12th of July, Mexicans have already taken to the streets, focusing on Mexico City’s central square. It could be the beginning of a nation-wide protest. And still I wonder, why are Mexican politicians not paying closer attention to the power of organized crime there?

Further to the south, in Nicaragua, one presidential candidate has died, which is likely to hand votes to former president and Sandista leader, Daniel Ortega. If Ortega wins, expect Nicaragua to take a sharp turn from a pro-United States posture. Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez has been sowing seeds of support in both Nicaragua and Mexico. As president of Nicaragua, Ortega would likely begin to close ties between the Central American country and Venezuela, starting with more oil.

Meanwhile, Colombia and Venezuela started construction on a gas pipeline between the two countries on the 9th of July. This is the first segment of a gas pipeline Chavez would like to extend to Panama.

With a terminal for Venezuelan gas in Panama, Chavez would likely begin selling more to China and his Central American counterparts. China, by the way, has upped their crude oil purchases from Venezuela from 168,000 barrels a day to 300,000 – a 45 percent increase. Between now and 2012, PDVSA expects to increase output by two million barrels a day. There are indications that much of this oil would go to China, but the East coast of the United States remains Venezuela’s top destination of oil products.

In Bolivia, president Evo Morales has realized the limitations of his power. The results of the vote to elect members to Bolivia’s upcoming Constituent Assembly did not give Morales’ political party the majority needed to enshrine its ideology into Bolivia’s new constitution. Morales’ party, MAS, won some 53% percent of the vote, while Jorge Quiroga’s party, Podemos, won some 23%. This means Morales will need to negotiate with Quiroga to reach consensus. This fact stifles any opportunity Morales may think he has to enact sweeping change in Bolivia.

Next door in Brazil, we are coming close to elections, scheduled for October, 6. Brazilian president Luis Inacio da Silva, better known as simply Lula, still holds the lead in polls over Alckmin. In the latest poll released, on Tuesday, the 12th of July, the race has tightened. Lula’s lead has slipped from 22.4 percentage points to 16.9 points. Still, if the election were held today, Lula would win with 44.1% percent of the vote, while his top competition, Geraldo Alckmin, Sao Paulo’s former governor, would take some 27.2 percent of the vote. Yet 50% of Brazilian voters are still undecided.

A factor that may hurt Alckmin in the future is the continued violence in his home state of Sao Paulo. When Alckmin began campaigning some months ago, he stood on two pillars – increased security and economic improvement. Under Alckmin, Sao Paulo saw both. He claims he can do the same for the nation. Yet as many of you probably know, Sao Paulo has had some trouble with prison riots, gang members attacking police stations, and cops retaliating with brutal force, sometimes excessive if you ask human rights advocates.

On the 11th of July, a third round of attacks, 38 in all, targeted police stations, buses, and empty banks. These attacks, organized by the First Capital Command, known as PCC in Portuguese continue to erode away at Alckmin’s security record. I have to wonder if that will translate to votes. If Lula wins what can he do to improve security in Sao Paulo? Not much.

As we’ve seen today, Lula has again offered federal help, but that help must be accepted by the governor of Sao Paulo. So far is hasn’t, and as long as the governor of Sao Paulo does not support the president, there will be a power struggle. The same is true for the state of Rio de Janeiro. I wonder if this is part of the reason why both of these states have a serious problem with organized crime.

In the Southern Cone, Argentina has seen a rise in crack use. It has doubled between 2001 and 2005. One dose of one gram costs one peso, or 32 cents. It’s hard to think of something that’s as cheap as 32 cents. You can’t even buy one can of coke for that amount anymore. The development that has led to this rise in crack use is cocaine cooking in Argentina. Argentine drug dealers years ago began to purchase coca paste from Bolivian connections so they could cook the cocaine in houses closer to the major market in Buenos Aires.

Cooking the cocaine yourself removes a handful of middle men. Past is less risky to transport, and once the cocaine is cooked, high purity levels ensure good sales. The side effect, of course, is also a constant supply of crack. To my knowledge, Argentine president Nestor Kirchner has not made a public statement concerning his country’s security challenges or rise in drug use.

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