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, November 16, 2006

Lula's Meddling, Chavez's deals, and a Regional Military proposal on the way...

This is number 15/2006. Votes for October's monthly survey have been tallied. The top two topics voted were the Mara Salvatrucha street gangs, which came in second with 27% and the FARC's international network, which came in fist with 33%. Over the next two weeks, we will prepare a detailed report on the FARC's international networks, including interviews, maps, and other graphics. I will announce its publication on the website and via this newsletter. Next week, I will post the new topics for the November survey, including the Mara Salvatrucha street gang topic, as it came in second this month.

In this edition:

Brazilian president Luis Inacio Lula da Silva visited Venezuela the week of 13 November to sign some energy agreements and inaugurate a bridge between the two countries that has recently completed construction. Interestingly, Lula's implicit backing of Hugo Chavez weeks ahead of Venezuela’s presidential elections raised alarm in Brazil over Lula’s apparent "meddling" in Venezuelan affairs. Up until now, Chavez has been the only state leader denounced for meddling in another country's elections.

Lula's timing was planned. He would prefer to see Chavez remain as Venezuela's president, as he knows Chavez's leadership in Venezuela does not threaten Brazil. It also keeps the United State’s presence in South America off balance, another geopolitical factor that works in Lula's favor.

Meanwhile, US President George Bush has quietly waived a long-standing prohibition on International Military Education and Training Program for countries around the world, including numerous Latin American countries. Venezuelan and Chinese military influence in the region likely has Pentagon leaders worried. It will be interesting to see if the US uses these training programs to increase military-military ties in South America in a move to counter-act Chavez's regional military movements.

Brazil has also made an interesting announcement. On 15 November, Brazil's military advisory group, the Nucleus of Strategic Matters began drafting a proposal for the creation of a South American military force, using NATO as a model. Chavez, Morales, and Kirchner will likely sign on to such a proposal, which looks like a play by Brazil to get back on top of the regional geopolitical game. I expect Lula to focus more on seizing regional leadership now that he's past the elections and has washed his hands clean (well mostly) of past corruption scandals.

Meanwhile, Venezuela has signed a memorandum of understanding with Syria and Iran to build a refinery in Syria. Venezuela has also recently signed a bundle of new agreements with China, bringing the two countries closer together.

Finally, Brazil has announced it will resume construction on its Angra 3 nuclear reactor. We're still waiting to see how the international nuclear watch dog, the IAEA, reacts.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Ortega, Maras in Mexico, and Hezbollah in Venezuela

This is number 14/2006. Sandanista Daniel Ortega is likely to become the next president of Nicaragua. Mara gangs are footloose in Mexico. And some Spanish scholars are talking about Hezbollah in Venezuela.

In this edition:

As of 7 October, most major media outlets have recognized Daniel Ortega as the president of Nicaragua. Ortega, however, has remained silent, and his opponents are calling for every single ballot to be recounted. Democracy watchdog, President Jimmy Carter, said the process was cleaner than elections he's witnessed in the United States.

The possibility that Ortega will begin to orbit Venezuela, along with Bolivia, is very real. Chavez is happy to continue his offer of fertilizer, oil, and fuel, and there's little reason to believe Ortega would refuse. There's also little reason to believe Ortega would manipulate Nicaragua's FTA with the United States. Concern in DC over such a possibility is rooted in outdated beliefs of Ortega the Sandanista more than today's reality. Ortega's presidency will be more about himself and his followers than Nicaraguans or becoming another thorn for Washington. Ortega will certainly have a leftist slant, but it's unlikely his politics will hurt the US beyond the State Department's pride. Chavez called Ortega late on 6 November to congratulate him, and I suspect it is the first communication in what promises to be a close relationship between the two men.

Ortega's presidency adds more evidence to the argument that the US State Department simply has no footing in the Americas and will only lose influence and support in the Americas from today's midterm elections through the end of the current presidential term and beyond.

North of Nicaragua, in the Mexican state of Chiapas, Central America's Maras mix with illegal migration. But their influence does not stop in Chiapas. Maras apparently have built a pipeline for human and drug smuggling north from Chiapas, along Mexico's Pacific coast, to the US-Mexican border. Their presence is Mexico is "flotante" or not rooted down, but their influence is only growing. Testimonies from a racketeering case in Maryland have revealed a certain level of vertical, or what I call north-south, organization between Mara leaders in Central America and their lieutenants that run Mara gangs in US cities.

Meanwhile, two Spanish scholars have taken seriously the recently planted bombs in Caracas. They see the bombs as the first act of Venezuela's Hezbollah cell, acting alone and not part of the greater terrorist organization in the Middle East. They call the 23 October bomb attempt a "frustrated" action of Hezbollah in Venezuela. But they argue this group wants to create a South American Hezbollah movement that will build international recognition through bombings in Venezuela. Ultimately they raise the question. Does Hugo Chavez's leadership in Venezuela send the message to international jihadists that Venezuela will tolerate fund raising, recruitment, propaganda, and training for militant Islamic movements?

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