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, September 23, 2008

The Monroe Doctrine: Circling the Drain

Many of the legacies left by George W. Bush will focus on the War on Terror and Iraq. In Latin America, however, his legacy will be one that always remembers how Latin America was lost on his watch. As President Bush closes out his final months in office, many in Washington lament that the Monroe Doctrine, the foundation of Washington’s soft power in Latin America, is circling the drain and nearly dead.

Iran, China and Russia are certainly helping it along, but they would be in no position to do so if the present White House had simply lived up to what President Bush promised in his first presidential campaign: closer ties with Latin America. If anything, however, President Bush has distanced himself farther from Latin America than any president in recent history, creating a vacuum that has been steadily filled by patron nations not motivated by Washington’s best interests.

On 22 September Russian Naval cruiser, Peter the Great, set sail with two other ships for Venezuela where they will take part in naval exercises in the Caribbean. Russian bombers recently left Venezuela after a number of training missions off the Venezuelan coast, and a long time Russian spy, now Deputy Prime Minister, Igor Sechin recently made his rounds through Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua at the head of a large delegation of diplomats and business leaders.

The Russians are courting Bolivia, offering helicopters to help combat organized crime and drug traffickers. Meanwhile, Bolivia has announced it will move its Middle Eastern embassy from Egypt to Iran, a county now hard wired to Venezuela with at least one weekly flight.

A runway built by the US military in Manta, Ecuador, may soon be used to receive regular flights from China, and there are talks to open an international deep water port in Manta, making Ecuador a primary link between South America and growing business interests out of China.

Hutchinson-Wampoa, the company that controls ports on both sides of the Panama Canal has shown considerable interest in building in operating the Manta port, as well as a deep water port in northern Mexico.

The Chinese Development Bank, a financial institution that conducts some US$400 billion in annual loans, grants, and other programs, will invest US$100 million in Chile, where the national mining company, Codelco, will soon open another copper mine just to meet Chinese demand.

Over the past four years, we have watched the president of Iran receive a warm welcome in Nicaragua, Bolivia, Venezuela, and Ecuador, when the US president was all but forced off stage at the Summit of the Americas in Argentina and embarrassed by a negative public reception in Guatemala at the tail end of his obligatory Latin American tour in 2007.

The US State Department declared in January 2008 that this would be the year of engagement. So far, there has been little more than a cursory glance at Latin America, with most of the attention coming recently when Bolivia, then Venezuela, sent the US ambassador packing.

The International Monetary Fund has been lambasted as a bunch of Washington cronies. The State Department's Human Rights report and yearly review of cooperation in the so-called War on Drugs is significantly watered down in an environment where the region’s new patron states don’t place a high value on protecting human rights or preventing drugs from entering the United States.

Any influence the United States may still retain over the region has all but eroded. And since Thomas Shannon, the State Department’s top diplomat in Latin America, visited China in 2004, it has been all but formally acknowledged that China has a “seat at the table” when any Latin America enters serious discussions over trade, military support, or foreign direct investment.

Looking ahead, President Bush will hand his successor two ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as the so-called wars on terrorism and drugs. By many accounts, the new president will inherit four “wars”. Three of the four wars are over an ocean and half a world away. And the war that potentially has the most impact on Americans' daily lives has received the least amount of attention and funding.

What may affect Americans the most in the coming presidential term and beyond is likely not the threat of nuclear war or a terrorist attack but losing the support and respect of a region that since 1823, when the Monroe Doctrine was first signed, has been for better and for worse, the sole purview of the United States.

In the last eight years, Washington’s backyard has become littered with a number of interests that range from hostile to indifferent towards the United States. For many Latin American nations, the upshot is choice, an option to trade with other countries aside from the US and the EU. They are new patrons who don’t care about human rights standards. They do not force Latin governments to give their soldiers immunity from prosecution at the International Criminal Court

Moving forward, many countries in Latin America, specifically Brazil, Ecuador, Chile, Argentina, and Mexico, may see winning combinations and synergies emerge from budding relationships with at least China and Russia. Iran is a distant, yet significant regional player.

The big loser will be the United States. US diplomatic pressure and geopolitical voice will increasingly fall on deaf ears. A region that was once very close has perhaps forever stepped away. It is unlikely future leaders in the White House will repair broken relations or revive one of the region’s oldest unspoken laws.

One Brazilian diplomat recently told Southern Pulse, “In the past, the door for talks with the United States on any issue had to remain open. We had no choice. Now we can close it if we want. And in the future, it may rarely, if ever, open again if China and Russia have their way.”

Thursday, September 18, 2008

A drop in the Bucket

Between 16 and 17 September, the Drug Enforcement Administration closed out Project Reckoning, a multi-layered operation focused on the activities of Mexican organized crime inside the United States and Europe. The 15 month investigation, focusing on the Gulf Cartel, culminated in the arrest of some 500 individuals in the US and Italy.

In addition, the DEA seized a large quantity of drugs and money. Their press release reads: “Project Reckoning has resulted in…the seizure of approximately $60.1 million in U.S. currency, 16,711 kilograms of cocaine, 1,039 pounds of methamphetamine, 19 pounds of heroin, 51,258 pounds of marijuana, 176 vehicles and 167 weapons.”

At a glance, this operation was a resounding success. The DEA’s mission has always been to focus on the big fish, the major players in drug trafficking, and by investigating the upper echelons of the Gulf Cartel’s operations in the United States, focusing on Atlanta, it had led a multi-agency effort to dismantle an important faction inside a major criminal network.

It is an impressive conclusion to a long investigation, and perhaps even a good start. But it is still only a drop in the bucket.

Not long ago, in early August, five Mexican nationals were found with their throats cut in an apartment complex in Birmingham, Alabama. Local police responded in force. But it is likely they were too late to catch the perpetrators, who were miles away, en route to Mexico before the first 911 call was even made.

This incident reminded us of the shoot out that occurred in Phoenix, Arizona on 22 June when organized criminal, dressed like Phoenix Police Department SWAT, entered the house of local drug traffickers and killed everyone inside before leaving the scene and fleeing back to Mexico.

Texan teens were recruited by members of Los Zetas to conduct assassinations in the Laredo area in 2006. The recruiters purposely targeted minors who were US citizens for the grisly work. For the duration of one year there were at least three cells of minor assassins operating across Texas.

These are just three examples of how the tentacles of Mexican organized crime have begun to stretch into and across the United States. Continuing demand for methamphetamines, cocaine, heroin and other drugs ensure a constant flow of drug supply north. And as Mexican organized crime consolidates control of all levels and layers of the drug trade in the United States, down to the wholesale level, the need to protect turf will extend north from the border into American cities as far north as Seattle and New York.

As the Merida Initiative indicates, the front line of the so-called drug war has moved north from Colombia to Mexico. But what Project Reckoning exemplifies is the fact that this front line will not stop at the US-Mexico border. It will continue north into American cities, towns, neighborhoods, and the suburbs of small cities like Birmingham, a place most people would consider safe and a fair distance from the blood bath constantly splayed across Mexican press.

For many years now, the argument against a supply-side approach to reducing the amount of drugs flowing into the United States has fallen on deaf ears, Republican and Democratic alike. And when the DEA most needs funding and support to dismantle large smuggling operations, the organization has seen significant budget constraints and a forced hiring freeze in 2007 and part of 2008, while the Department of Homeland Security, perhaps one of the best examples of bureaucratic failure in the past decade, has seen a constant budget boost.

The result is an increase in the number of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agents organizing the deportation of immigrant criminals who are back within the week, often bringing others with them. There are many examples that suggest deportation feeds a cycle of violence between the US and Central America, with Mexico in the middle.

The encroaching presence of Mexican organized crime inside the United States is inexorably tied to immigration because both challenges have everything to do with the US-Mexican border. In as much as Mexico is unable to provide security incentives to stay home and contain its own organized crime problem, Americans will continue to watch as violence directly linked to the drug trade migrates from foreign press, to national news, to local reports.

The border cannot be plugged, and deportation is not an answer. The most direct route to improving this situation is by focusing on assisting the Mexican government with a security problem it clearly cannot handle. The Merida Initiative is a start, but when the total aid for three years, some US$1.5 billion, is compared with the annual earnings of Mexican organized crime, estimated between US$15 and 40 billion, one begins to see how much more help is required. It is best sourced from international partners, and if Mexico continues to suffer, the United States will continue to be the first in line to feel the effect.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Bolivia's Morales Fights to Avoid a Common Fate

When Bolivian President Evo Morales won the 10 August referendum with some 68% percent of the vote, many observers thought he had taken a major step in the right direction towards quieting his opposition. Events since the referendum, however, have proven that if anything the opposition is more incensed and strategically better positioned than ever to thwart Morales’ plans to mold his country after his own progressive ideals.

On the 27th of August, the Brazilian military was mobilized to help Morales out of an embarrassing situation. When a Bolivian military helicopter carrying President Morales landed in Guyaramerin in the northeastern Bolivian department of Beni, after his meeting with a Canadian oil company, members of the Youth Union of Beni attacked the helicopter with rocks and bottles.

Morales was quickly escorted to a waiting car and driven to the Mamore River, which forms the border with Brazil in that region. Crossing into Brazil, Morales was eventually met by a Bolivian military transport craft that landed by the light provided by the headlights of Brazilian military trucks lined up on either side of the runway at Brazil’s Guajara Mirim base.

Such youth groups with a strong following in Beni and in the city of Santa Cruz have been the more militant arms of an opposition in Bolivia’s “media luna” lowlands region where an ongoing dispute over the reallocation of resources, specifically the direct hydrocarbon tax (IDH), has opposition leaders at loggerheads with the Bolivian government.

Road blocks, protests, and other acts of civil unrest have continued to disrupt the flow of goods and services around the country and by many indications appear to be getting worse.

Opposition leaders have control of food and energy resources that flow from the lowlands to the highlands, where there is a mass concentration of Morales supporters. But Morales has significant popular support and the control of the military.

When opposition leaders in the southern department of Tarija threatened to cut off gas supplies to Argentina, Morales responded by sending the military to secure the gas stations.

But as some analysts have pointed out, it wouldn’t take more than a well placed explosive to disrupt gas flows from the lowlands to the highlands. In the coming weeks, as Morales pushes harder for a national referendum to consolidate the legality of the country’s new constitution, it is possible such dramatic measures are taken.

Already, it seems, the Morales camp is preparing for this eventuality. On 30 August, the Bolivian Vice President, Alvaro Garcia, outlined the possible development of a terrorist group in Santa Cruz, a city long held by the opposition. A day before Garcia’s announcement, a group of Morales supporters, seeking to peacefully march to the center of Santa Cruz, were met by a group of violent anti-Morales activists. A number of Morales supporters were seriously injured.

Before leaving for his trip to Algeria, Lybia, and Iran, Morales announced that the nationwide referendum to approve or reject the new constitution would be held on 7 December. Governors from the "media luna" departments of Beni, Santa Cruz, Tarija, Cochabamba and Pando have said they would prevent their people from taking part in the vote. And on 2 September, Bolivia’s National Electoral Court blocked the 7 December referendum decree stating that by Bolivian law, any such vote must be first approved by the Congress, which has the authority to set the date. Bolivia’s senate is controlled by Morales’ opposition, placing the president at a serious disadvantage.

One side controls the presidency and military, the other controls most of the country’s resources, the senate, and a surly, unorganized group of militant youths. Something will eventually give, and it is not clear if Morales will succeed in preventing the opposition from blocking his reforms and perhaps forcing him out of office. Morales will have a fight on his hands if he wants to avoid the very same fate he has helped hand his predecessors, all of whom were members of the opposition.
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