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.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

100 Days of Security?

Since Guatemalan president Alvaro Colom entered office earlier this month, there have been at least 170 murders. That’s around 13 a day. Compared to all of 2007, where nearly 16 people were killed a day for a total of 5,781 murders, we could say Colom is off to a good start.

The day after he was inaugurated, Colom initiated a security plan to run for the first 100 days, called the “Plan de Seguridad de los Cien Dias,” or the 100 Day Security Plan. It appears to be a quick patch to test the water and give him some time to fine tune a more robust plan while benefiting from observing how the country reacts in the short-term. By all accounts, the plan has increased violence, a predictable result.

The headline in Guatemalan papers on 28 January was that 1,314 alleged criminals have been apprehended since Colom came into office, an impressive number. But it wasn’t long before Colom had to reply to a sharp criticism about his judicial system. Apparently one of those captured, a notorious street gang member known as Miguel Garcia or “The Dwarf”, was let go within hours of his arrest. He was wanted in connection with the massacre of 19 minors on the 19th of January.

As mentioned in previous commentaries, Colom is in a tight spot. During the campaign leading up to his election, the man was hounded by former associated who threatened to kill him if he didn’t follow through on promises made years ago when he sold his political soul to his country’s organized crime bosses. As president, Colom must still attend to the shadow elements of his political party, but the question remains whether or not he will let these elements dictate policy on a national level or simply be content with Colom looking the other way.

At the same time, he must appear tough on crime. The 100 days plan is evidence of his desire to show the constituency that his administration will be tough. In Guatemala, however, the administration is dealing with a two-front battle. On one side he has organized crime that moves anything that earns money, from drugs and humans to organs and guns. But this group is not the most immediate threat to security. It’s the street gangs with swelling numbers not necessarily from local recruitment but from arriving deportees.

Wave after wave of deported criminal arrives in Guatemala where, despite the best efforts of the US Department of Homeland Security, Interpol, and the Guatemalan National Police, all the criminals who arrive in Guatemala can’t simply be detained, as we can see from the recent release of “The Dwarf”. As I’ve said before, Guatemala will be a very interesting place to watch over the next 70 days and on into the future. Right now, it’s hard to see how Colom can pull Guatemala out of this downward spiral without significant help from the international community – help that heretofore has not been exactly forthcoming…

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The FARC's pulse and Mexican army hemmorage

With so much chatter on the international wires about the FARC hostages in Colombia, what will become of Ingred Bettencourt, and other issues revolving around the dance between Colombian president Alvaro Uribe, Hugo Chavez, and the FARC leadership, it is interesting to take a reading on the health of the FARC itself.

For many years, the FARC survived through kidnapping. As it has obviously become more involved in the drug trade, exporting cocaine from Colombia became a substantial portion of the insurgency’s revenue. Some argue that money earned from selling drugs indirectly to US consumers has by far surpassed revenue earned from collected kidnapping ransoms, to the point where kidnapping has become more of a political tool and less of a business. Given the current back and forth with Hugo Chavez, a geopolitical dance that has significantly raised awareness of the FARC on an international level, it seems this strategy, if indeed it is a strategy, may be working.

Yet within the FARC itself, a number of set backs from the death of key tactical leaders in 2007 to the loss of territory inside Colombia has hobbled the group. Despite the fact that the FARC’s founder has said that 2007 will be an offensive year for the FARC, it is hard to see just how the FARC can improve its position through the use of military force. Guns and ammunition aside, the FARC needs soldiers, yet according to the Colombian military, some six members of the FARC and the other insurgency, the ELN, abandon the rank and file every day. This is, admittedly, a biased source for information on the FARC, but it allows for an interesting numbers game.

If both the FARC and the ELN lose six soldiers a day, then it is possible that the FARC itself loses at least three a day, or 21 a week, 84 a month, and 1,008 a year. This number may seem small, but it gives an idea of how the ideology within the rank and file, the personal reasons to remain a member of the FARC, has perhaps faltered within the group itself. Do insurgent soldiers sign up because they believe in the same values shared by the FARC founders over forty years ago? Or maybe they sign up because it’s the best option in a world of limited opportunity. Either way, the rank and file of the FARC seems to be wavering. Do FARC footsoldiers have the heart to take an offensive stance that will likely lead to direct confrontation with a highly professional Colomban army?

Finally, a point of comparison: when FARC soldiers run away, where do they go? Likely not to the Colombian army, but when members of the Mexican army run away, it is possible, even likely in some cases, that they join the rank and file of Mexican drug trafficking organizations (DTOs).

According to some sources, new recruits sign up for military training already knowing that after training and sometime in the field they will switch sides to join the DTOs. Between 2002 and 2006, some 150,333 Mexican soldiers decided to desert their post. There is little doubt many of them now fight for the Sinaloa Federation, the Gulf Cartel, or one of the many, smaller DTOs in Mexico.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Barrio Azteca borderland gang

Five leaders of the Barrio Azteca gang were arrested on 10 January in a sting operation organized on intelligence gathered from a four-year long operation to unravel prison gangs on the US-Mexico border. The Barrio Azteca gang started in the southwest Texas prison system and quickly spread to the streets of El Paso and the prison system in Ciudad Juarez, across the border. Linked to the Carrillo-Fuentes drug trafficking organization, also known as the Juarez Cartel, this gang is exemplary of how powerful organized criminal groups in Mexico outsource their security and dirty work to local gangs.

But the Barrio Azteca is not exactly small time. It was founded in 1986 within the US prison system and quickly spread to the Segundo Barrio neighborhood of El Paso, where it boosted membership among the Mexican immigrant community there before moving into the prison system in Ciudad Juarez, where it may have up to 2,000 members by now.

After making a link with the Carrillo-Fuentes DTO, based in Ciudad Juarez, the Barrio Azteca gang negotiated a deal to receive drugs at a discounted rate and the right to charge a fee to any retail-level dealer working on their turf in exchange for providing security services for the Mexican DTO as well as helping with north-south movement of drugs, people, guns, etc as the DTO needed.

Through the Carrillo-Fuentes DTO, the Barrio Azteca gang is loosely connected with the Sinaloa Federation, a grouping of a number of powerful drug trafficking organizations, making its role in El Paso all the more important. Much of the black tar heroin coming out of Mexico is smuggled through El Paso and on to Los Angeles, Dallas, New York, and Chicago.

Considering Barrio Azteca’s ties with the Sinaloa Federation in El Paso, it is not a jump to consider how other street gangs in other border towns, such as San Diego, or Laredo, have become options for outsourcing security and local-level drug dealing as well as intelligence gathering. The Mara Salvatrucha in Texas and the L-Street gang in Los Angeles come to mind.

Meanwhile, in neighboring Arizona, any illegal immigrants caught in the ArizonaMexico will be subjected to due process and could receive up to 180 days in prison for their efforts before being deported. The minimum is fifteen days. This program, called “Streamline” by the Border Patrol, seems to already be headed toward the realm of unintended consequences. desert on the border with

Already underway in the Yuma region of Arizona and the Del Rio region of Texas, this program feeds illegal immigrants into the local prison populations may serve best to offer gangs like the Barrio Aztecas a buffet of menu options for new recruits. In Arizona alone, this program and others placed 378,000 illegal immigrants in prison between 30 September 2006 and 30 September 2007. After 180 days, converted deportees will likely cross the border again, this time not to find a low wage job, but as mules for crossing drugs into the United States.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Welcoming 2008

In the first week of the new year, there are a number of items that are worth our collective attention but too little space here to cover all of them. We'll make our way through them slowly, perhaps elucidating more on the blog, while reserving the more interesting points for this weekly newsletter.

Today I'll focus on what seems to be some of the more interesting issues at hand but want to begin with a quick mention of a radio show called Focus 580 with an NPR station out of Illinois. The host and I talked about the US and Mexico, the drug trade, and who supplies versus who demands. You can find it here about halfway down on the left.

The US Dept. of Justice has finally made public its position that Mexico has become the number one supplier of methamphetamine to the United States. It's about five years behind the ball with that one. Known as "ice" or simply "meth" this drug is probably the most damaging in terms of public health costs and the most addictive, next to heroine, in terms of how many heavy users it creates. The fact that Mexico has been for years the number one supplier is again testimony to how organized Mexican narco traffickers are when it comes to managing their US distribution networks - so much so that they managed to identify a new trend in drug demand inside the US and take over the supply chain, one that was once solely inside the US and mostly in California.

Another interesting revelation, as some members of the Southern Pulse network have mentioned, is the nature of Mexican drug traffickers and how it is changing. The Tijuana Cartel, as we have pointed out in the past, has become more of a black market financial institution as it's muscle and strong-arm presence within Mexican drug trafficking has diminished. The question is whether or not the TJ Cartel will give up their control of that border crossing into the United States. Might they "lease" it to the highest bidder?

Both the Sinaloa and Gulf Cartels have long been involved in politics on a local level, pressuring specific candidates to get out of the race, killing others who have won, and on a more popular level, sponsoring marches against the "military occupation" of certain towns and small villages in northern Mexico. We're researching this trend in preparation for a forthcoming report on Drug Trafficking in Mexico, our third. We will let you know when it is ready, hopefully by the end of the month.

Is it true that Guatemalan president Alvaro Colom will take orders from organized crime? This is an answer we will try to find over the duration of his first hundred days in office, to kick off soon. Elsewhere in Central America, ten people have died in the past 24 hours in El Salvador, most of them when gunmen separated themselves from a crowd watching a soccer game when they began shooting, apparently at random. What will it take to subdue the violence there? We think part of the problem is US deportation policies and a lack of information sharing between the US and its Central American colleagues.

Finally, how will South America take shape in 2008? Will Brazilian president Lula re-assert his regional leadership as Chavez begins to look toward cleaning his own house? Already we've seen Lula working to bring Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru closer. And it's clear Brazil and Colombia are friendly. Argentina is up in the air. Could it be that President Cristina allows Venezuela to buy her support as her husband did?

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