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.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Summer slow down...

Until mid-July, I will be on the road conducting field research for my first book, a nonfiction narrative about organized crime and immigration in the United States. 

By the third week of July, I will be back with the weekly commentary, Security in Latin America.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

What if Mexico's Military Doesn't Win?

For over 500 days, Mexican President Felipe Calderon has used his military to combat organized crime across the country, specifically in Tijuana, Juarez and the states of Michoacan, Sinaloa, and Tamaulipas. But the body count suggests his measures have incurred more trouble than solution.

For the past 16 months, Mexico has registered 3,600 deaths - 225 a month, or an average of 7.5 a day - related to organize crime, according to Mexican daily La Cronica. In some pockets of Mexico, such as Culiacan, where violence has spiked in recent weeks, some quietly wonder what will happen if the military cannot control what is clearly the country’s top national security threat.

Mexico’s National Security Council met in Culiacan, Sinaloa on 13 May to discuss measures needed to diminish violence in the region. The high-level emergency meeting, including the Mexican Attorney General, head of the Mexican intelligence agency, the Secretary of Public Security, the Secretary of National Defense, and the Secretary of the Navy among others. It was organized after two weeks of extended violence in Culiacan that saw a number of policemen killed as well as members of organized crime, most notably the son of alleged leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, “El Chapo” Guzman.

According to some observers, the violence in Sinaloa may be in part due to a recent division within the Sinaloa Federation between “El Chapo” Guzman and the Beltran Leyva brothers. But what is beyond conjecture are the hardened positions taken each by the state’s police and military forces, and members of organized crime that operate in Sinaloa, a strategic state in the Mexican smuggling underworld.

During a two week span from 28 April to 12 May, a number of incidents escalated violence to the point where it has spilled over into Mexico City, causing at least one assassination that has put the whole country on edge.

On 30 April, a shootout in Culiacan left three gunmen and two local police dead. Another 13 were arrested and police seized some US$370,000 along with an unspeficied number of high-caliber rifles. The next day, Edgar Millan, head of the 27,000 strong Federal Preventive Police (PFP), held a press conference to assure the public that Calderon’s government would continue fighting.

He then boarded a plan to escort the 13 captured gunmen back to Mexico City where they were likely subjected to long hours of interrogation.

The following day, 2 May, four PFP agents were killed while patrolling a small town 15 miles outside of Culiacan. Two municipal policemen were killed along with along with two more gunmen and one unidentified male who was shot in the head. The bad guys had struck back.

By 4 May, notices started appearing around Culiacan. They came in the form of macabre messages written on coarse cloth cuts dangled from public places. Some messages were from the cops, telling the criminals to watch out. Others were from the criminals in response. And some were from one of the Beltran Leyva brothers, who claimed to be the boss in Sinaloa, a curious development. The various messages, none signed except those from Beltran Leyva, continued showing up every morning on 3, 4, and 5 May. By 6 May, local police lines were jammed with dozens of anonymous calls, most fictitious, about this or that cop who had been killed.

The next day gunmen again attacked the police, but only four were wounded. That was when the governor of Sinaloa, Jesus Aguilar Padilla, asked for a National Security Council meeting to be convened in Culiacan. But before they could meet, howver, a crowning moment of violence occurred in the early evening hours of 8 May.

Most believe it had nothing to do with the police.

Coming out of a local store, Edgar Guzman, the 22 year-old son of “El Chapo” Guzman, was attacked by an onslaught of gun fire and a discharge from at least one bazooka. He was instantly killed. The son of the Sinaloa Federation’s chief financial officer was also killed in an onslaught that left over 500 shell casings littered about the parking lot.

Now, Mexican authorities fear, there is confirmation that the Beltran Leyva brothers, formerly in association with “El Chapo” Guzman, have split from the Sinaloa Federation, marking the moment with the death of Edgar.

And to drive home the point of their strength and gut for violence, the brothers orchestrated the assassination of Edgar Milla, the head of the PFP, who was killed in Mexico City only hours after the death of the son of the alleged leader of the Sinaloa Federation. In under two days, the Beltran Leyva brothers exploded onto the Mexican organized crime scene as yet another group the Mexican government will have to dismantled before peace can be won.

It is reminiscent of when a DEA agent involved in the hunt for Pablo Escobar, the head of Colombia's infamous Medellin Cartel, lamented that killing Pablo only made way for the rise of the Cali Cartel. Now, as the Mexican army squeezes the life out of the Tijuana and Juarez Cartels, could it be that it has made room in the country’s black market for the rise of the Beltran Leyva brothers? If this is the case, then the question, “what if the military can’t stop them?,” is perhaps more appropriate than we thought.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Bolivia's Internal Power Struggles

The selfish interests of a small group of upper class Bolivian families could determine the future of their country's geopolitical position in South America.

These families stand at the center of Bolivia's secessionist movement in the state of Santa Cruz, where a referendum for the state's autonomy was held on 4 May. Voters favored autonomy at 84 percent. It was a political gut shot for President Evo Morales' administration. But the outcome reaches beyond Morales and could have prolonged consequences for both Brazil and Argentina.

Bolivia supplies Brazil and Argentina with the natural gas that moves industry in Brazil and warms homes in Argentina. Disruption of the flow of gas is not an option for either country.

Two years ago, when Morales nationalized his country's natural resources, he began a long battle to redistribute the wealth of his country from the hands of the few - represented by Santa Cruz - to the hands of the many, mostly his poor constituents. Yet in Santa Cruz stands the most concentrated group of interests that has the most to lose from Morales' vision.

The recent referendum represents the culmination of a long road of shouts, protests, some street clashes, and mostly political maneuvering to avoid the power of the state, and Morales' administration, from stripping them from their long-held positions of economic power. Santa Cruz will not go quietly, and leaders there know they have some leverage.

Santa Cruz is the engine of the Bolivian economy, representing 50 percent of the country's GDP and some 90 percent of the country's industrial strength. The state can easily stand alone, and without Santa Cruz, the rest of Bolivia would wither on the vine. Morales knows this but rather than fight the secessionist movement head on, he has simply regarded their referendum and clamor as illegal and the fruit of "imperialist" conniving.

Since the Bolivian Congress has made any secessionist referendum illegal, Morales has the legal upper hand, but he could not ignore Santa Cruz if state leaders decide to unilaterally act on their recent vote. The referendum vote, theoretically, gives state leaders more autonomy, allowing them to control their own state police, form a parliament, enter into binding agreements with sovereign nations, and control all land redistribution.

Three other provinces, Pando and Beni to the north of Santa Cruz, and Tarija on the southern border with Argentina, will hold secession referendums in June. While not as economically important as Santa Cruz, a successful referendum in these countries would form a strong oppositionist block using the voice of the people: the same tactic Morales has used to push forward his own political agenda.

Most importantly, Tarija and Santa Cruz both lie on significant natural gas deposits. Tarija sits on some 85 percent of the country's proven gas reserves. Depending on how this power struggle progresses, the leaders of both Brazil and Argentina could find themselves pulled into Bolivia's domestic problems to secure supplies of natural gas, a matter of national security.

Bolivia's military has remained at a distance from the political dispute, although most presume it will remain loyal to Morales. The Bolivian military is the most interesting component of this situation. If the generals' loyalty remains with Morales, he will have the necessary tools to force the unruly upstarts into line. If not, the secessionists, led by Santa Cruz, would force the hands of Argentina and Brazil.

It is unlikely that any war breaks out over control of Bolivia's natural gas resources. But as one group struggles to preserve its power against a government that has a democratically elected right to redistribute that power, Bolivia's neighbors can't help but pay attention. The decisions of a small group of families could very well change their future.

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