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, December 17, 2009

Game Change in Mexico

This morning the Washington Post reports that after a two-hour shootout with the Mexican Navy, Arturo Beltran Leyva, known as the Boss of Bosses, died in a Cuernavaca apartment in the state of Morelos, just south of Mexico City.

This is a major victory for the Calderon administration in a month that has seen an uptick in violence across the country, as members of Los Zetas, working with Beltra Leyva, have gone on the offensive against the Sinaloa Federation in and around the Federation's traditional stronghold in the city of Culiacan, Sinaloa.

To date, Arturo Beltran Leyva is the highest ranking Mexican criminal to be killed by government forces during the Calderon administration.

Arturo's death will certainly destabilize the BLO, which will likely lead to more violence in Morelos, Guerrero, along the border and other pockets of Mexico where the BLO has held fast to its turf despite a year in which his organization saw a series of major arrests.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Zetas headed to the white market

On a few occasions I have been invited to talk about the evolution of the Zetas, from elite bodyguards for Osiel Cardenas to a powerful criminal organization in their own right.

Two men now control the Zetas, Miguel Triveño, and Heriberto Lazcano.

Lazcano is the undisputed head of the Zetas and known to keep a cool head and think strategically. Triveño is more like a traditional Mexican drug lord with his ostrich skin boots, big cowboy hat, gilded pistol, and country-time apparel. Both men will kill on a moment's notice, but between the two, I believe that Lazcano has a mind for business and a long-term strategy for his visions of what the Zetas are today and what they are evolving into for tomorrow.

He doesn't want to go out like his former boss Osiel, who was extradited to the United States, never to be heard from again. And he certainly doesn't need to go down like one of his captains, El Hummer, who was found unguarded in a house in Reynosa.

My argument has focused on the idea that the Zetas are moving out of the black market, into gray and while market activities. From traditional drug and human trafficking and kidnapping and extortion, the Zetas have moved into the gray market of protection. I believe that Lazcano's men will offer protection to anyone who is willing to pay for it - from criminals who work for the Beltran-Leyva or Carrillo Fuentes organizations, to well positioned businessmen. In both cases, the client needs protection from other criminals, the police, and everyone in between.

And the Zetas have long demonstrated that this protection is something that they do best.

On 6 December 2009, a Dallas Morning News article further backed up my argument for the Zetas movement into the white, or legal, side of business in Mexico and abroad. The Gulf Cartel, and the Zetas by extension, have always invested in small businesses, which help launder money. But this article takes this consideration a slight step farther, and I think their sources are right.

Here's an excerpt:

"Aside from money laundering, the Zetas are seeking legitimacy from those they have terrorized over the years…Investigators and civic leaders say the Zetas are trying to position themselves to become movers and shakers, even political players, in communities where they have a major presence."

At the head of this strategy is "La Compania" - a term the Zetas started using for themselves in mid-2009 (maybe sooner) to differentiate less violent activities from the criminal branding already well established by the Zetas brand.

Looking ahead, I would not be surprised to see clean cut, respectable looking businessmen working for the Zetas as the group moves from looking and acting like Triveño and more like Lazcano.

And if law enforcement is worried now, they've got a lot to consider looking toward a future where a group as sophisticated, organized, and ruthless as Los Zetas goes from hiring bullet slinging thugs to clean-cut business mans. The evolution will be slowly and difficult to detect, but I think it's already underway with a long road to go yet.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009


Colombian National Police released statistics earlier this week revealing that investigators registered 14,715 homicides between 1 January and 6 December 2009.

There were over 14,000 homicides registered in Venezuela in 2008.

By the end of November, authorities had registered 7,396 homicides in Mexico, passing 16,000 since December 1, 2006.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Chavez: Going out with a bang

During a lecture I gave yesterday on Mexican DTOs and criminal insurgencies, one of the students brought up President Chavez and the civilian militias in Venezuela.

He wondered out loud about how civilians with little training and a handgun could - over time - contribute to insecurity in the South American country. And that got me thinking...

A friend who travels to Caracas regularly has told me that even in the light of day you can't walk through the middle of town in a suit without feeling like you might be mugged at any moment. I felt the same way the last time I was there.

And as SouthernPulse has reported, there were over 14,000 murders in Venezuela during 2008 - compared to a little under 14,500 murders in Mexico between December 2006 and December 2008.

After a quick look, I found an interesting piece on Venezuela's civilian militias, recently published by Colombia's Semana Magazine.

The "Milicia Bolivariana" is a fifth fighting force made up of civilians. A presidential decree formally inaugurated this militia in October of this year, and plans to have at the least a million individuals prepared to repel any invasion of Venezuela.

Chavez tried to slip the creation of this militia in the 2007 referendum, but it was not approved. Only when the National Assembly approved the "lye organica" for Venezuela's military was his militias finally added as part of Venezuela's fighting forces.

The militias will have two components. One referred to as territorial, and the other combat. The territorial component will be made up of what amounts to domestic spies, something similar to the revolutionary defense committees in Cuba, which have had everyone in Cuba speaking in a whisper for decades.

The combat component seems to be little more than a formal expansion of the so-called "circles bolivarianos", which are made up of uber-Chavez supporters (see photo), armed to defend his policies across the country capital city, especially in the slums of Caracas, and some would argue in countries across South America such as Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia, Argentina, and Peru.

These men essentially formed street gangs that have over time become quietly marginalized by the Chavez government, some argue, because Chavez realizes that they were a mistake, one that today cannot be controlled. And here I must recall the high murder rate in Caracas, as I would suspect that homicides have a lot to do with what left of the circles bolivarianos."

Venezuelan security analysts agree that there are between nine and 15 million illegal weapons in circulation in Venezuela today. That is, there is little control over stockpiles or any efforts to remove these arms from circulation.

Add to that reality one where normal civilians are armed, waiting to be called to war by their president, and we have an extremely volatile situation, especially around election time.

As we watch Chavez's popularity slip, I'm becoming more convinced that when he goes, not if, he'll go out with a bang, or perhaps a few million "bangs."

FARC with money problems

Some interesting news out of Colombia earlier this week reported that the FARC is in financial trouble.

Former Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos announced at the end of November 2009 that "there are certain disagreements between [FARC leaders] Mono Joyjoy and Alfonso Cano."

For many years, the FARC has suffered the effects of a two-way split between the younger members, led by Joyjoy, who want to go after the money through drug trafficking, and the older members, led by Cano, who are more ideological and presumably still set on overthrowing the Colombian government.

Since both factions are in need of money, a disagreement over the direction of the FARC has surfaced with a significant amount of tension, according to some reports.

It will be interesting to see how Cano and Joyjoy resolve their differences. If the FARC does split, I would imagine that the more militarized Joyjoy faction would continue on, while the ideological side of the FARC would either wither on the vine or somehow try to transform into a peaceful political party… Maybe events in 2010 will tell...

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Human Rights and Corruption vs. Exposure in the Mx. Army

I submitted a comment on Shannon O'Neil's blog Latintelligence, and it turned out to be long enough to share here.

Her post is here.

My comment, written as the Founding Editor of SouthernPulse, is as follows:

Apart from concerns over corruption and human rights, which are both important considerations, we must also keep in mind that the Mx. military is not a sustainable option for Mexico's and indeed the sub-region' long-term security for many reasons, including the solder's exposure to the temptations of organized crime.

When you consider that there is one general for every 333 soldiers in the Mexican Army, compared to one general for every 1,720 soldiers in the US Army, we have a top-heavy scenario. These numbers coupled with the fact that generals earn US$13,000.00 a month, compared to recruits, who earn US$453 a month, spells out what we would consider a significant problem with pay for recruits.

Another consideration: the contract for a recruit is three years. But when a soldier is deployed, the Mexican Army can extend the recruit's term of service by a total of six more years. This, in part, is why we've seen a consistent number of soldiers A.W.O.L. Keep in mind that when they leave, they know that no one will hunt them down for desertion. The only real penalty, apart from foregone pay, is that their command post retains federal identification documents. These are easily forged.

Our consistent worry, apart from human rights abuses and corruption, is that the military's presence in the streets exposes soldiers to a criminal element that can pay them better, offer them better equipment, and in at least the case of the Zetas, can offer them benefits for their families and an esprit de corps that in many places has begun to falter across the Mexican Army deployments.

We don't mean to suggest that all who choose to go A.W.O.L. go rogue and join the ranks of organized crime. This is not the case. But there is an opportunity and a strong incentive. The longer the military remains in the streets, the longer soldiers will have to think about crossing to the "dark side."

Along with a discussion over human rights and corruption, we should consider this exposure, as exposure is what likely most contributes to abuses and corruption.

Brazil takes a step closer to Iran

Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Brazilian president Luis Inacio "Lula" ad Silva signed a raft of 13 agreements on 24 November 2009 that encompassed just about everything except military and energy.

The most notable agreement signed detailed the loosening of visa restrictions. As those of you who have traveled from Brazil to the US know, Brazil maintains a reciprocal visa policy, which simply reciprocates for foreign nationals the procedure required for Brazilians to enter any given country.

So if Iran agrees to allow Brazilians to visit Iran and receive a three-month tourist visa upon entry, then the same would be true for Iranians visiting Brazil. I haven't seen the wording of that particular agreement, but I suspect it might be something similar to a three-month tourist visa stamp upon arrival.

Ahmadinejad also won an important position statement from Lula, who has now announced that Brazil supports Iran's right to peaceful nuclear energy. This is classic Lula, who likes to talk one way and act another. Given Brazil's desire to reform the UN Security Council, such positions are not tenable in an environment where Iran is considered a "non-aligned" country.

It's also worth mention that Brazil has had its own disagreements with the IAEA, so Lula's position in support of Iran is also one that supports Brazil's long history with the IAEA, one that promotes sovereignty and peaceful nuclear development. But then again, Brazil is not Iran, nor is it a "non-aligned" country.

When push comes to shove, I don't think Brazil will choose supporting Iran over its UN goals.

And on that note, Petrobras announced on 16 November that it's conducting an evaluation of its operations in Iran to determine if the energy company should pull completely out of Iran. The excuse? Discoveries have not been commercially viable...

Monday, November 23, 2009

La Familia in Chicago

The New York Times reported today that prosecutors indicted 15 members of La Familia DTO out of Michoacan, Mexico.

Here's an excerpt:

"The investigation, officials said, uncovered a “command and control” group distributing thousands of pounds of cocaine for La Familia Michoacana, a major cartel in Mexico known for its messianic leaders and propensity to behead enemies. Last month, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. announced federal charges against 300 people linked to the organization in 19 states."

La Familia is one of the smallest and least established Mx. DTOs in the US. If the organization is in 19 states with some 300 people, and at least 15 operating a "command and control" post in Chicago, what does that mean for the Zetas or the Sinaloa Federation's activities in the US?

Monday, November 02, 2009

Breaking the Silence

Posts have been thin and sporadic of late - such is the life of a freelance journalist. Wells have dried up, so like most of my brethren, I'm scrambling to keep pace with the changing nature of the media industry…

Here are some updates:

With John Sullivan, I published a piece on how Costa Rica and Panama have been caught in the middle between Mexico and Colombia, where organized criminal operatives from both countries have pushed into new territory.

Since that publication, we have seen a string of murders in Panama City, and just this past week, the head of the Sinaloa Federation in Costa Rica was arrested in Puntarenas (See Southern Pulse newsletter, Networked Intelligence tomorrow afternoon for details).

Honduras continues to provide some interesting developments. Since I published a piece on Honduras and how mainstream media should be focusing on what's going on behind the so-called coup de teat, we've seen a sharp up-tick in narco-flights landing in various points across the country.

Most of the flights, according to both Honduran and Colombian officials, originate in Venezuela, where the bulk of air traffic has shifted - it was once the purview of Colombian traffickers.

And Caracas has quietly become one of the most dangerous places on earth. With over 14,000 murders last year (country wide but many in Caracas), and police as corrupt as ever, Caracas has become a nightmarish place to visit. I'm told that you can't walk on the streets in a business suit after dark, and during the day, you should stick to the main streets. I felt this tension on my last visit to the city in November 2005.

Side streets, apparently, are teeming with young thieves. Dairy products and meat are hard to come by, and soon the entire city will begin rationing water, with rolling "water cut offs," scheduled by the government in 48 hour segments.
Can you imagine being mugged for a bottle of water? Back in Mexico, we continue to watch an ever-changing situation. Many of the country's states remain in solid control of one of the many DTOs there, but the agreements between various groups form and break like ice melting and re-freezing from one day to the next.

From what I understand, the Beltran-Leyva Organization (BLO) has hired Los Zetas to strengthen its fight against the Sinaloa Federation. The Carrillo-Fuentes Organization (CFO) cooperates with BLO and the Zetas, and remains very active with its own group of sicarios.

Los Zetas, meanwhile, have targeted Sinaloa and Michoacan.

The Arellano-Felix Organization continues to crumble, and now faces a very real threat from inside Tijuana.
The tit-for-tat murder and dismemberment of cops and others in the state of Michoacan indicates that the Zetas are pressuring members of La Familia, who have initiated La Familia Guerrense for the state of Guerrero. The Zetas are also pushing into Sinaloa, and the recent kidnapping if nearly two dozen ranch workers outside of Culiacan indicates that the powers that be in that area are worried about Zeta infiltration. After all, these guys - and their trainees - are well versed in training locals to act on their behalf…

I'll also add that I recently published a piece on diamond smuggling in South America, with a focus on Guyana, Venezuela, and Brazil. The Panamanians will soon open the region's only diamond trading hub, and some are worried that it will become a funnel for illegal diamonds leaving the region.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Iran and Venezuela: The 2009 Dosado

This Southern Pulse Intel Brief, dated 24 September 2009, is republished here with permission from the Southern Pulse editors.


In a recent interview with conservative French newspaper Le Fiargo, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez thanked Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for the technology transfer required to develop a nuclear energy program in Venezuela. The agreement, Chavez claims, was signed in early September, and serves as a capstone for the tightening of relations between the two countries over the course of 2009.

While visiting Ahmadinejad on his eighth trip to Iran during the week of 5 September, Chavez reportedly followed up on 186 separate agreements formed between the two countries since 2005. A 10-year strategic alliance was proposed, as well as joint plans for the construction of a oil refinery in Syria with an expected capacity of processing 150,000 barrels of oil a day.

Venezuela has also agreed to sell Iran 20,000 barrels of gasoline a day beginning in October 2009, but Chavez declined to disclose the duration of the US$800 million agreement. To further support Iran’s energy needs, PDVSA has also agreed to establish operations at Iran’s South Pars 12 gas field, with estimated reserves of some 12.6 billion cubic meters of natural gas
Iran has reciprocated with the announcement that its government will validate educational qualifications and academic titles awarded in 47 Venezuelan universities.

The September meeting comes only five months after Chavez’s last visit to Tehran in the first week of April, when he travelled with a selected group of Venezuelan businessmen. They were on hand to witness the inauguration of a joint Venezuelan-Iranian development bank, reportedly capitalized with US$200 million, with half to be provided by each government. Iranian Kourahs Parvizian will become the president of the bank, while Venezuelan Nelson Ortega will become the vice president.

While in Tehran, Chavez also called into a Venezuela Television show, Contragolpe, to describe plans for a joint Venezuelan-Iranian mining company to formalize five years of mining operations shared with Iran in Venezuela. Chavez noted that the new mining company would focus on six minerals and some precious stones, including diamonds.

Later in April, the Iranian Defense Minister Mostafa Mohammad Majjar landed in Caracas for a short trip to sign a series of “unspecified agreements.” Presumably, these agreements facilitated the 29 April signature of a memorandum of understanding between the Venezuelan and Iranian armed forces.

Within the remaining months of 2009, Venezuela and Iran are likely to expand on their peaceful nuclear initiative, one that France has already flagged as a violation of UN Security Council resolution 1737.

Traffic accidents as leading cause of death

With all the talk and focus on organized crime and other matters of security in Latin America, I wanted to take pause to underscore one often over-looked fact: traffic accidents are the leading cause of death in many Latin American countries.

Most of these "accidents" are due to driving under the influence of alcohol.

In Mexico, for example, a consultant for the Pan American Health Organization, and the World Health Organization, says that Mexico ranks 7th in the world for deaths caused by vehicle accidents. The total surpasses 20,000 a year, averaging about 55 a day.

Compared to the swine flu, the consultant states that for every one death caused by the swine flu, some 20 deaths are caused by automobile accidents.

Murders related to organized crime in Mexico, while by no means benign, have yet to surpass 5,000 a year.

In a city such as Rio de Janeiro, traditionally considered one of the most violent in the region, automobile accident deaths have outpaced murder for well over a decade. Last year, for example, a car full of teenagers speeding home after a long night at some of the city's most expensive dance clubs, jumped a curve and hit a pedestrian before wrapping itself around a tree. Body parts were found strewn across the accident scene.

In Peru, where many people die due to bus accidents, investigations in 2007 found that many of the bus drivers were drinking behind the wheel. One particularly nasty accident in December, 2006 sparked the accident. A bus had slipped off the side of a high Andean road and plunged well over 1,200 feet to the valley floor below, killing 45 passengers. A five-year-old boy and the bus driver were the only two survivors.

Some 4,000 people die and another 40,000 are injured in traffic accidents every year in Peru.

Buenos Aires, surprisingly, was the only city where I found that death caused by traffic accidents did not surpass other causes of death. I say surprisingly because Argentine drivers in the capital drive offensively like just about every other driver in Latin America.

Apart from that small slice of life in Latin America, across the region, from Mexico south, you will find many examples of drunk-driving deaths. With all the focus on organized crime and violent death, it's important to consider the leading, rather than the most news-worthy, cause of death in Latin America.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Guatemala: An Important Source of Weapons

This Southern Pulse Intel Brief, dated 5 September 2009, is republished here with permission from the Southern Pulse editors.


The Mexican navy announced at the end of August 2009 that it had installed six new naval stations in Chiapas near the Suchiate and Usumacinta rivers that form part of Mexico's southern border with Guatemala. These two rivers have traditionally been where many illegal crossings into Mexico occur, so this focus on the Mexican-Guatemala border is reassuring, but for Mexico. As for Guatemala, we've received a significant amount of information that points toward Guatemala's increasing role as a secondary source of weapons for Mexican criminals, especially Los Zetas.

On 21 August 2009, authorities seized a cache of weapons and vehicles near the Mexico-Guatemala border in Huehuetenango, allegedly owned by members of Los Zetas. There was enough equipment and firepower to mount a swift attack patrol.

Just a week before that event, a small aircraft landed near Escuintla, located near Guatemala's Pacific coast, with 636 kilos of cocaine. Police who discovered the plane also found five assault rifles, a grenade launcher, and six containers of fuel (during the last week of July, Guatemalan authorities discovered a cache of 750 kilos of cocaine, reportedly valued at US$9.2 million, in the same area near Escuintla).

Perhaps the most significant weapons seizure so far in 2009 happened in April in the small village of Amatitlan, just south of Guatemala City and not too far from Escuintla. After a firefight with alleged members of Los Zetas, five federal agents had been killed, but those who remained standing seized 350 kilos of cocaine, 11 grenade launchers, nearly 600 fragmentation grenades, 11 M-16 rifles, over 5,000 rounds of ammunition, and 11 M-60 machine guns.

Another 500 fragmentation grenades and five AK-47 rifles were found during a routine sweep of "hot-spots" in Guatemala's Peten department in March 2009.

Sources in Guatemala have noted that fragmentation grenades can be sold for as much as US$38 a unit, while AK-47 rifles sell for around US$315 a unit if used or US$1,255 new.

When we consider that some 1,100 fragmentation grenades, 11 M-60 machine guns, around a dozen grenade-launchers, and at least 20 assault rifles have been seized in Guatemala between March and August of this year, the conclusion is disturbing. The black market for guns, and especially grenades, in Guatemala is hot. The Zetas, however, have added stealing weapons as a procurement option.

Between July 2007 and January 2008, members of Los Zetas stole an estimated 500 weapons from the Mariscal Zavala military base - a random assortment of pistols, rifles, machine guns, grenade launchers, and grenades are missing.

Finally, on 20 August 2009, alleged members of the Zetas stole a shipment of weapons en route from Guatemala to Mexico. Grenade launchers, rocket launchers, grenades, assault rifles, and magazines were included in the heist.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

DHS sets a goal for border interdictions in 2010

I'm on the road, but wanted to share a quick note.

According to the Gov't Accountability Office (GAO), the Dept. of Homeland Security (DHS) has set a goal for fiscal year 2010 to apprehend around 30 percent of all criminals and contraband that flows into the US from Mexico.

Here's an excerpt:

"At the ports of entry, Customs and Border Patrol has both increased training for agents and enhanced technology. However, the DHS Annual Performance Report for fiscal years 2008-2010 sets a goal for detecting and apprehending about 30 percent of major illegal activity at ports of entry in 2009, indicating that 70 percent of criminals and contraband may pass through the ports and continue on interstates and major roads to the interior of the United States."

More detail here.

I'll be back to more regular posting next week.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Juarez could be the most violent city in the world

Mexico's Citizen Council for Public Security and Justice has issued a report just ahead of today's presidential address in Mexico (Calderon's version of the State of the Union) that underlines insecurity in Ciudad de Juarez, Mexico.

Juarez, according to the report, is more dangerous than Caracas, Cape Town, Baghdad, and Medellin.

August killings reached 300, surpassing a record set in July, with 267.

In 2008, a homicide rate of 130 killings for every 100,000 inhabitants was recorded, and Juarez accounted for nearly half the killings in Mexico in 2008.

So far this year, a total of 1,481 murders have been recorded, compared to a total of 1,623 murders for all of 2008. There were only 320 murders in 2007...

From the Dallas Morning News:

A poll published Tuesday in Mexico City's Reforma newspaper seems to indicate continuing support for his policy.

The poll showed that 37 percent of Mexicans believe the government is winning the battle against organized crime and that 20 percent do not. Moreover, 82 percent said they approve of the use of the military against drug traffickers, although 49 percent said they believe the military is involved in human rights violations.

The nationwide poll of 1,500 people had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 percentage points.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Ye Gon is Exhonerated in US Federal Court

Zhenli Ye Gon, the Chinese-Mexican who was arrested in Maryland in late 2007 on charges of "selling 500 grams or more" of methamphetamine in the United States, is one step closer to freedom.

On 28 August, a federal court judge dropped the drug trafficking charges, claiming there was not enough evidence to prosecute the case.

One affidavit filed with a US Disctrict Court claimed that Ye Gon had imported some 87 tons of restricted chemicals into Mexico "for the express purpose of manufacturing pseudoephedrine/ephedrine" - the precursor chemicals for methamphetamine.

In October, 2008, as federal prosecutors worked to gather evidence, they warned the judge that they "were having difficulties" gathering needed evidence from other governments (such as Mexico).

Ye Gon was the owner of a house discovered in March 2007 by the Drug Enforcement Administration and Mexican Federal Police where they found US$207 million dollars stacked like bricks in the house. At the time, the DEA noted that it was the organization's largest cash bust in history.

Further investigation revealed that Ye Gon had actually accumulated US$305 million in pseudoephedrine sales.

Ye Gon must now fight his extradition to Mexico, where he will face justice for money laundering and organized crime.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Texas Sheriff Sentenced to Five Years

Former Starr County (map)Sheriff Reymundo Guerra was sentenced to 64 months in prison and four years of supervised release yesterday (27 August). He was found guilty of disrupting justice and facilitating Gulf Cartel smuggling operations into Texas.

A few months ago, when I was in Cochise Cty., Arizona, the local sheriff there told me that taking a bribe from mexican criminals amounted to a "sin of omission." That is, men and women who protect the border can choose not to do something that they can and should do.

On the border, they can choose not to stop a car that they know is full of contraband. Border sheriffs, likewise, may choose not to focus their investigative force on specific subjects, or a specific hot spot in the county, because their criminal employers have asked him to simply look the other way. In the criminal world, there is likely no other job that is easier than looking the other way...

Kudos for the FBI on taking this guy out. He is a disgrace to all men and women who wear a badge, and, unfortunately, stands as yet another example of how our law enforcement officials here in the US are not immune to the corruptive force of Mexican drug trafficking.

One of my favorite Texas bloggers concluded a similar post with the same thought I'd like to put forward:

"How many more officers are out there on the take is anybody's guess."

Lula's UNASUR Summit

Southern Pulse Intel Brief | 27 August 2009

republished here with permission from Southern Pulse editors.

Brazilian President Luis Inacio “Lula” da Silva generated the most interesting news this week, ahead of the 28 August UNASUR summit, to be hosted by Argentina in the ski-resort town of Bariloche.

On 22 August, Lula signed a raft of agreements with Bolivian President Evo Morales in Bolivia’s Chapare region. An agreement worth US$332 million underpins the construction of a 306-kilometer highway from Villa de Tunari in the Chapare to the eastern Bolivian department of Beni.

Brazil has also agreed to import tariff-free textiles worth some US$21 million, which is the same amount of money Bolivia lost due to Washington’s decision not to renew the US-Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act (ATPDEA) last year. The two leaders also discussed changes in the Brazil-Bolivia natural gas deal, as well as cooperation for bilateral efforts to combat the drug trade, but no solid agreements surfaced.

By many accounts, this meeting was a significant win for Morales, who has been under pressure to find alternative markets for Bolivia’s textiles. The highway construction will also please Chapare leaders, who are Morales’ closest political supporters. He will need them later this year for the run up to Bolivia’s 6 December 2009 presidential elections

For his part, Lula has assured support from Bolivia, despite Morales' anti-US stance, at the UNASUR summit, which promises to be contentious with both Venezuela and Colombia in attendance, and with Ecuador currently holding the president’s chair, which Colombia will likely view as an unfair arbiter.

While Lula has voiced some concern about Colombia’s agreement to allow the US military access to seven military bases in Colombia, he does not side with Chavez, nor can he take such a hardened position against Colombia. UNASUR is widely considered Brazil’s initiative and the strongest effort towards unifying South America under Brazil’s leadership. Lula cannot lean too far to the left in criticizing Colombia and the US at the risk of distancing himself from regional moderates and Washington.

The concern over US bases in Colombia does signal that the United States can still tilt the balance of soft-power in the region, but Lula’s deft diplomacy will likely win out. He did invite President Obama to attend the summit, and while Obama will likely not attend, Lula can at least maintain an open posture towards Washington, signaling that as the de facto regional leader, Brazil has nothing to fear from the US’ increased military presence in Colombia. He also did receive assurances from Obama’s National Security Advisor, Jim Jones, in early August that there would be a “good explanation” for the US’ presence in Colombia.

But Brazil would like a commitment: Obama will not use the Colombian bases to launch missions into other countries. This request is also one made on behalf of all of Colombia’s neighbors - a conciliatory geopolitical stroke ahead of the summit to make sure that Ecuador, Colombia, and Venezuela can at least agree on something.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Is Venezuela's economy stronger than Mexico's?

Most of us who follow Venezuela would agree that this country's economy is in the tank, and largely reliant on oil, the one export that manages to pay the bills.

Mexico, however, is in a very similar situation. Pemex suffers, and Mexico is heavily reliant on the national oil company to maintain a robust revenue stream.

Then the so-called "global recession" hit. And somehow, Venezuela has faired better than Mexico. Here are the latest numbers:

Bloomberg reported on 20 August that Venezuela's economy shrank 2.4% during the second quarter of 2009, compared to 2Q08. This is the first time Venezuela's economy has contracted since 2003...

Mexico's National Statistics Institute reported on 20 August that the country's economy shrank 10.3% during the second quarter of 2009, compared to 2Q08.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Pressure for Results in Mexico

When corruption undercuts good police work, pressure to falsify results builds to the point where innocent men and women are tagged and persecuted for crimes they did not commit.

What's worse is when torture is involved.

On the 21st of June, 2008, 30 members of the Mexican federal police (PFP) interrupted a child's party in Tijuana and arrested 58 guests and the lead singer of the hired band. Now, over a year later, information has surfaced to suggest that every single one of these "suspects" were innocent. Beyond the horror of being falsely accused and forgotten in a Mexican prison, many of these people were tortured and forced to admit that they were members of the Arellano-Felix Organization (AFO), the drug trafficking organization that operates out of Tijuana.

One man's story is particularly disturbing. He was the godfather of the birthday child.

Cristian Jesus Sotelo Mendoza, along with the rest, found himself in the basement of a military base somewhere in Tijuana. For a period of time he cannot remember, he was tortured, threatened, and ultimately forced to admit that he was someone called "El Muletas" a wanted criminal and member of the AFO.

Sotelo Mendoza told Ricardo Ravelo of Proceso magazine in this week's latest issue that he was taken into a separate room from the others where both members of the police and soldiers punched and kicked him.

Then they placed a wet hood on his head with a second bag covering the hood. The aggressors then began hitting him in the stomach with a rod so he would inhale deeply and choke on the wet hood, shouting and threatening to kill him.

Sotelo Mendoza was handcuffed and forced to sit in a chair. The bag and hood was removed. The interrogators then took a wet shirt and stretched it across his face before throwing buckets of water in his face and kicking him in the stomach to force him to breathe in the water.

The torture didn't stop there. The forced chili peppers up his nose before taking him to another room where he was stripped naked pushed to the floor and forced to endure long secessions of physical attacks.

The next day, together with his brother-in-law, Sotelo Mendoza was forced to run to the end of a hall and into a room packed with Mexican press. When Sotelo Mendoza opened his eyes, he faced the Mexican press, standing behind a table of weapons he had never seen.

He, along with his brother-in-law, was presented as one of the lieutenants of the AFO, known as El Muletas. His brother-in-law was presented as "La Perra." The third man in the room was the vocalist from the band hired to perform at the birthday party. He was presented as "El Gordo Villarreal."

After the press conference, the three men along with another 37 of the original 59 who were arrested at the party were transferred to a separate military prison where they were held for another 40 days, without charge. When a charge did come through, all but 22 were let go.

And those 22 people, who apparently did nothing wrong more than attend a little girl's party have spent the past year in prison, apart from being tortured and presented as people they are not.

By now, most of these people have been released, except for the father of the birthday girl, who is still in prison, accused of being La Perra despite the fact that the Mexican Attorney General's office announced on 6 July 2009 that the real man, known as La Perra, had been captured.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Shifting security realities in Brazil

The Brazilian military announced on 18 August that it will increase troop presence on the country's border with Colombia.

This is a conversation that has been going back and forth between the president's office and the military generals for years. Slowly but surely, the Brazilian military has begun to make a shift from its traditional focus in the southern part of the country, where the assumption is that Argentina is considered the most likely to invade and the Amazon provides the best defense from potential enemies to the north.

Closer ties with Colombia, such as the hot-pursuit fly over agreement, and generally closer cooperation on security matters, has prompted the Brazilians to think more about that border. Exactly where the troops will be concentrated remains a vague detail, but I suspect that Leticia is one destination, as well as certain areas of the infamous "Dog's Head" area.

The Dog's Head refers to the shape of a specific section of the Brazilian-Colombia border, traditionally a haven for illegal gem miners, FARC soldiers, and all sorts of ne'er-do-wells.

Overtly, the military is worried about "spillover" from Colombia's internal conflict, but I wonder to what extent that worry about Venezuela has primed the generals for spillover from that country, in the event of a political meltdown in Caracas.

Brazil would be very careful not to tip off Chavez, so where troops are placed will be very interesting. How close to the Brazilian-Venezuelan border will they go?

More here on the Brazilian-Colombian aspects of this decision. Boz explores today the "post-conflict" scenario in Colombia with the so-called emerging-groups capturing some attention as the newest threat to security in Colombia.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Iranian activity in Bolivia

My research assistant, Kelsey Price, has completed her third backgrounder for this summer. Her first detailed energy security in Russia and Turkey, and the second reviewed Sino-Brazilian relations. In her third and final piece, she reviews Iranian activity in Bolivia.


International observers have questioned Bolivia’s ability to control crime within its borders before, especially concerning the drug trade and the Maoist terrorist group Shining Path. Four provinces are looking to separate from the central government, resulting in referendums and anti-referendum marches. Now with Iran’s increasing presence in South America, Bolivia may also be susceptible to radical Islamic activity inspired (or organized) by its new ally.

President Evo Morales’ track record doesn’t help Bolivia’s case either—his links to various attacks in Peru, especially, cast doubt on his ability to control (or keep away from) terrorism in the region. Morales’ former aide was accused in 2007 of assisting terrorism in Peru, specifically with the Cuban Tupac Amaru movement of the 1980’s. Deteriorating relations with Latin American neighbors combine now with right-wing opposition of Morales’ Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party. Main opposition leader Manfred Reyes Villa, former Cochabamba Prefect, has joined forces with disgruntled indigenous rights leaders in order to form a significant alternative to Morales. More importantly, four provinces began to seek independence from La Paz in 2008: Santa Cruz, Tarlja, Beni, Pando and Chuqulsaca. The two parties reached an agreement that October, but tension still lingers over relations between Morales and the opposition-led provinces.

The conflict brought about by such a strong—and influential—opposition may create the kind of instability needed for a future crime hotbed to grow. Bolivia’s ties with Iran, especially, suggest that radical Islamic activity may begin to take root in the region.

Iran’s initiative to gain support in Latin America leads it to investing in left-wing Bolivia, second only to Venezuela in winning the Middle Eastern nation’s favor and financial support. The two partners have discussed joint venture projects in the industrial and manufacturing sectors, and critics conclude that Tehran secretly has its hands in uranium mining deals as well. Iran promised in 2008 to invest 1.1 billion dollars in Bolivia in the next five years, aimed at strengthening economic and agricultural ties while also fostering the Bolivian energy sector. So far, Tehran has lived up to its promise. Iran has funded on credit the construction of two cement and six milk-processing plants, three health clinics, and suggests potential aid in oil and other energy fields.

The Iranian administration caused an uproar in the government’s own Majlis parliament when it provided Bolivia with an unapproved loan of over 280 million dollars on July 31, 2009.Over and above the material and financial support that Iran has provided, newly installed TV and radio stations may spread Tehran’s influence at a more cultural level. Iranian radio has broadcast in-depth reports and interviews about its positive relationship to Latin America, the evils of colonialism, and anti-imperialism. “This opportunity has come up for Iran,” said Dr Massah, a university lecturer on one program, “to spread the slogans of anti colonialism, prevent the international system from becoming monopolized, and spread the sense of seeking justice, which arises from Islamic standards, in [Latin America].” Bolivia’s state-run TV channel regularly shows Iranian movies, and a Muslim preacher delivered services at a state-sponsored event in June 2009.

Some of Morales’ sizable opposition questions Iran’s intentions and growing influence. “We need to ask what Iran’s real interest is in Bolivia,” said dissident presidential candidate Roman Loayza. “Evo has no business entering into agreements with foreign interests at the back of the Bolivian people which could harm our environment.” Both sides of those agreements insist that Iran’s activities are harmless.

The partnership has become more than just economic, however; Bolivia has sided with Iran in recent controversial issues, including some in which Islam influenced the decision. Bolivia joined its radical counterparts in the Israel-Palestine issue in January 2009 by breaking off relations with Israel, a move endorsed by President Ahmadinehad, Iranian MP and head of Iran-Bolivia Parliamentary Friendship Group Arsalan Farthi-Pur, and even Hamas. The support of the terrorist organization may be at least the first step in the direction of a Bolivia heavily dependant on radical Islamic groups.

Bolivia shares another political stance with these groups: its disdain for the United States. Morales even expelled the US Drug Enforcement Agency in November 2008 in a move that analysts have said was thought-out foreign policy. However, Bolivia is predicted to return for the American agency to help counter its ever-growing drug problem; the country is the third-largest producer of the coca leaf in the world.

Bolivia’s only reported brush with radical Islamic activity was a group of Shi’ite missionaries sent by Iranian fundamentalist group Hezbollah to convert indigenous Latin American tribes, according to a Bolivian journalist in 2007. At the time of the report, the group had successfully installed bases in other areas, mostly along the Venezuelan-Colombian border, and was spreading to the Quechua and Aymara Indians of Bolivia. The real threat, however, comes from Hugo Chavez’s role in the Hezbollah group’s presence. Considering the strong relationship between Iran and Venezuela, especially among its populist leaders, the possibility of Morales’ involvement in something like the Hezbollah missionary project seems likely. Bolivia, with its Iran-sponsored health clinics and TV channels, may adopt the same relationship to Tehran’s more controversial groups.


“Peru seeks extradition of terrorism-accused ex-Bolivian aide.” Global Insight. 25 October 2007.

“Bolivian candidate forms alliance with indigenous leader.” Bolivian newspaper La Razon websitre, 7 July 2009. Translated by BBC World Monitoring.

Barbel, Marion. “Andean bloc, European Union offer mediation services to tense Bolivia.” 14 April, 2008. Global Insight.

Bolivians resist Iran's search for uranium; Mountain holds mineral prospects.” Washington Times. 27 July 2009.

Kazemi, Azadeh. “Iran wants to ‘exploit’ Bolivian uranium.” Iranian newspaper Kargozaran. 22 September, 2008.

“Iran confirms plans to install television channel in Bolivia.” Bolivian newspaper La Razon website. 20 May 2009. Linked by BBC World Monitoring.

Iran MPs slam government over loan to Bolivia.” Iranian news agency Mehr. 3 August 2009.

“Iranian Esfahan TV airs programme on Iran-Latin America relationships.” 7 October 2008. Iranian Esfahan provincial TV station. Supplied by BBC World Monitoring.

Bolivians resist Iran's search for uranium; Mountain holds mineral prospects” Washington Times. 27 July 2009.

See “Bolivians resist…” Washington Times, 27 July 2009.

“Iranian President praises Venezuela, Bolivia for break with Israel.” Venezuelan newspaper El Universal website. 22 January 2009. Linked by BBC World Monitoring.

“Iranian MP thanks Bolivia for condemning Israel’s ‘war crimes.’” Iranian official government news agency IRNA website. 20 May 2009. Linked by BBC World Monitoring.

“Hamas welcomes Bolivian decision to sever ties with Israel.” Pro-Hamas Palestinian Information Centre. 15 January 2009. Linked by BBC World Monitoring.

“Expulsion of US agency ‘well thought out foreign policy.’” Bolivian newspaper Los Tiempos. 4 November 2008. Linked by BBC World Monitoring.

Volkel, Christian. “Anti-Narcotics Co-Operation to Continue between US and Bolivia.” Global Insight. 8 April 2009.

“Hezbollah Missionaries Operate in Amazonia.” Peruvian newspaper La Razon, 29 October 2007. Provided by BBC World Monitoring.

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