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, June 15, 2006

Elections and leadership in Peru, Brazil, Venezuela, and Argentina

Today’s show presents an interview with Michael Shifter, who is vice-president for policy with the Inter-American dialogue, a Washington, DC-based policy analysis think tank for Western Hemisphere affairs. Mr. Shifter is also a professor of Latin American politics with Georgetown University in Washington. He has lived in Lima, Peru and Santiago, Chile.

Following up on Mr. Shifter’s recent interview with Peruvian president-elect, Alan Garcia, I began our interview by asking about Garcia’s plans for Peru. We also touched on issues of Peruvian relations with Brazil, Chavez’s strategy for the upcoming presidential elections in Venezuela, and the possibility of former Argentine economic minister Roberto Lavagna.

You can find the MP3 here.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

The Kalashnikov Threat in Venezuela

Only the MP3 version includes extra comments and analysis. If you want to listen to this post, please download the file here. Otherwise, please keep reading...

...Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez announced on 30 May that the first shipment of 30,000 AK-103 assault rifles would arrive in Venezuela by the end of June. On the same day, Alexander Badistan, spokesman for the Russian arms manufacturer Rosoboronexport, said the company would grant Venezuela a license to manufacture AK-103 rifles. Chavez’s statement confirmed that claim. “The Russians are going to install a Kalashnikov rifle plant and a munitions factory so we can defend every street, every hill, every corner,” he said.

The 30,000 rifles that are due to arrive in Venezuela are part of a larger arms build-up that has caught the attention of US and South American leaders. Yet for all the media coverage of new fighter jets and submarines from Russia, patrol boats from Spain, and the specter of ballistic missiles from North Korea, a threat that has been overlooked has become more serious.

The Venezuelan military does not employ strict control over its stockpile of small arms and light weapons and ammunition for those weapons. According to the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), 400 of the 9,380 rifles seized from illegal groups in Colombia from 1995 to 2000 bear the symbol of the Venezuelan Armed Forces.

The US-based RAND Corporation think tank claims that there were at least 21 known arms trafficking routes between Venezuela and Colombia in 2003. Reports from Jane’s Information Group claim that members of the Venezuelan Armed Forces continue to smuggle into Colombia small numbers of Venezuela’s old FAL rifles.

An AK-103 rifle factory based in Venezuela could add hundreds of thousands of guns to Venezuela’s poorly controlled weapons stockpile.

Meanwhile, Transparency International ranked Venezuela in its 2005 Corruption Perceptions Index as the third most corrupt nation in Latin America, more “honest” than Paraguay and Haiti.

Rampant corruption, combined with strong ties between some Venezuelan security officials and leftist rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), creates a scenario that places Venezuela in the center of a region-wide black market. Adding hundreds of thousands of assault rifles creates a temptation for Venezuelan criminals to sell those weapons on the black market, creating a region-wide security threat.

Central America has traditionally served as a reliable source of black market weapons for the FARC. Paraguay and Brazil are also known resources for weapons, ammunition, and other materials. Venezuela has been seen as a major transit country, and not high on the list of source countries for arms flowing into Colombia. A new weapons factory there may change that fact.
Corruption helps create and maintain all sources of black market weapons. And as governance becomes less a priority in Venezuela, impunity and corruption develop into norms.

Billions of dollars, dog eared for government programs, have simply disappeared, most likely siphoned-off by corrupt officials, according to Gustavo Coronel, a former member of PDVSA state-owned energy giant's board of directors who now monitors corruption in the Chavez government. Coronel claims that social programs such as Plan Bolivar 2000, and its replacement program, The Centralized Social Fund, are defunct and run by military officers who have little to no oversight.

It has become clear that leaders of Venezuela’s military, as long as they remain loyal to Chavez, receive no oversight from Caracas. Venezuela cannot offer any reasonable assurances that AK rifles purchased from Russia or manufactured in Venezuela will not leak into the hands of the FARC or other extra-legal groups in the region.

In the meantime, Chavez continues to spend billions on planes, boats, submarines, and helicopters, claiming the Venezuelan military needs a facelift. While this may be true, the more important matter lies with Chavez’s new batch of AK-103 rifles, and those that follow. Fighter jets, submarines, and patrol boats are all part of a conventional army, quickly rendered useless by an opponent's missiles. Considering Chavez’s adherence to guerilla warfare and the success asymmetrical warfare has had in the recent past, AK rifles are much more of a threat than any attack helicopter or fighter jet.

Monday, June 05, 2006

True Power Behind Organized Crime in Brazil

(Note, this piece has been modified from its original form, first published by the Power and Interest News Report.)

Only the MP3 version includes extra comments and analysis. If you want to listen to this post, please download the file here. Otherwise, please keep reading...

...The violence that paralyzed Sao Paulo from May 12 until May 20 revealed the raw power of the First Capital Command (P.C.C. in Portuguese), considered one of the most powerful organized criminal factions in Brazil. Prison riots that erupted in nearly 100 prisons led to over 150 murders, destroyed city buses, and terrorized millions of citizens, propelling Brazil onto the world stage. Yet a more deeply-rooted system run by the P.C.C. reveals how powerful this gang has become.

On May 10, just two days before the riots began, two members of the Sao Paulo Department of Investigation of Organized Crime, Missers Bittencourt and Ferraz, testified before the Brazilian Government Inquiry Commission on the Traffic of Illegal Weapons about their understanding of the true power of the P.C.C.

Bittencourt and Ferraz testified that the P.C.C. is a very serious problem that is only growing. They blamed Sao Paulo authorities for separating and sending to other Brazilian states various leaders of the P.C.C. by pointing out that because of this separation, the P.C.C. now has a strong presence on a national level in Matto Grosso do Sul, ParanĂ¡, Bahia, Rio Grande do Sul, and Brasilia.

According to Bittencourt and Ferraz, the P.C.C. controls over 140,000 prisoners in the state of Sao Paulo alone. Another 500,000 individuals support the organization outside the prison system. This group helps enforce some 100 cases of extortion organized by the P.C.C. on a daily basis, representing some 70 percent of kidnapping cases in Brazil's financial capital of Sao Paulo.

Apart from a proven ability to organize simultaneous, widespread prison riots and destabilize public security, the organization has constructed a network of informants, lawyers, blue collar workers, gun and drug dealers, and bankers to do its bidding. This network is held together by a criminal financial system that finances education, facilitates crime and engages in killings. Bittencourt was quoted as saying, "to be [associated] with the P.C.C. is good business."

Membership fees are the bread and butter of the P.C.C. For prisoners, a fee of 25 dollars is charged every month. Individuals on the outside pay a fee of 225 dollars Given these fees and the high membership numbers both inside and outside the prison system, it is possible that the P.C.C. organization earns millions of dollars a month from fees alone.

Criminal finance is another revenue stream. If a group needs $10,000 to mount a bank robbery, they can go to the P.C.C. In this case, the P.C.C. acts as a black market bank to finance and facilitate criminal activities.

To distribute weapons, the P.C.C. uses Sedex, a Brazilian courier system known for reliability and timely delivery. Weapons as large as assault rifles have allegedly been delivered by Sedex to the waiting hands of criminals.

The P.C.C.'s weakest link is its legal team. Currently 18 lawyers serve the P.C.C. leadership, according to Bittencourt. They oversee dozens of legal cases against P.C.C. members and make regular visits to P.C.C. leaders imprisoned around the country. Brazilian law protects the lawyer-client relationship to extremes. Prison authorities are not allowed to search lawyers when they enter the prison to visit their clients. Many believe that the lawyers bring cell phones, two-way radios, laptops, and other critical tools the P.C.C. needs to keep its criminal system running.

Reaching beyond its current legal team, the P.C.C. supports law students, paying full tuition in exchange for services once they have a law degree. The P.C.C.'s educational funding extends to future politicians and other individuals who indicate an interest in entering Brazil's political world. The group also facilitates the path for students who want to enter public security. These efforts and more act as a well-planned insurance policy to ensure the continued existence of the P.C.C. through the manipulation of Brazil's judicial, political, and security systems.

It was the manipulation of Brazil's political system that led to the purchase of the testimony Bittencourt and Ferraz prepared for their audience. For some $100, the PCC purchased the testimony from an employee of a company contracted to record and transcribe congressional hearings. The material was allegedly purchased by a P.C.C. lawyer, who delivered the information to the P.C.C. leadership.

Also documented in this material was Bittencourt's decision to move on May 12 P.C.C. leaders to more secure prisons to prevent what they had learned would be widespread prison rioting on May 14. The P.C.C. once again proved their superior intelligence networks when they began the riots two days early, leading to a week long struggle to bring peace and rule of law back to Sao Paulo.

As a criminal enterprise, the P.C.C. took life inside a Sao Paulo prison in 1993 when prisoners grouped together to force the improvement of their living conditions. Since then, many prisoners, their family members, and other poor Brazilians idolize the P.C.C. as an armed faction of Brazil's extreme left political flank, working to improve the rights and lives of impoverished Brazilians. For this reason, the P.C.C. draws many of its young recruits from the shantytowns surrounding Sao Paulo.

Many of the people in these communities believe the P.C.C. speaks for them when it fights against what they perceive as a deeply corrupt political organization, beleaguered by broken judicial and penitentiary systems that support an oppressive security structure.

A great irony is many Brazilians believe the P.C.C. fights for them against a government that they consider the true oppressor. At the same time, the P.C.C. has demonstrated a level of power that can only be achieved by taking advantage of the loopholes and cracks in various democratic institutions that today in Brazil appear to facilitate organized crime more than protect and serve Brazilian citizens. What happened in the second week of May 2006 is a minor showing of the true power the P.C.C. holds. It is a level of sophistication and organization that the international media have not been able to elucidate and that people in Brazil would rather not talk about.

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.
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