One could say that during the first decade of the century, nowhere has the intersection of globalization, organized crime and political violence been more fully realized than in Central and South America.
While cartel violence in Mexico captures global headlines—more than 30,000 drug-related murders since 2006—the drug problem stretches far beyond Mexico. Murder rates have soared in Guatemala and Honduras as gangs have carved out zones virtually free of state control. In Colombia the weakened leftist revolutionary group FARC has morphed into a major drug cultivation and smuggling operation, even as the government has made enormous strides in dismantling its leadership and vanquishing the drug cartels that dominated the country in the 1980s and 1990s.
The mass disclosure of U.S. diplomatic cables by WikiLeaks in November shed light on how far the problem of the drug cartels has spread. A cable from the U.S. Embassy in La Paz, Bolivia—a major cocaine source—dated November 2009 notes that given the fact that Mexican cartels have been flying cocaine shipments to Africa, then smuggling them into Europe, the European Union “fear[s] the introduction of third-country criminal organizations” into the continent, and is considering increasing law enforcement and counternarcotics assistance to Bolivia and its neighbors. European officials expressed interest in reopening the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in La Paz.
While the U.S. isn’t about to get involved in major operations to fight the drug trade at its source, U.S. Army Col. (ret.) Robert Killebrew sees a role in a training and advisory capacity in the region, noting that Colombian forces have been successfully trained by U.S. Special Forces and Drug Enforcement Agency personnel. Another role the U.S. can play is that of a third-party jailer, which has the effect of removing drug bosses from their home countries and severing communication between them and their henchmen. Killebrew says the U.S. involvement in Colombia is having an added effect: Colombians are now providing advice to the Mexicans. “Colombia had special forces down there,” he says, adding that a Colombian special forces general told him he gives “great credit [to the U.S.] for re-professionalizing the Colombian military.”
While U.S. national security attention has been focused on Al Qaeda and the Middle East for a decade, “the big fight is what’s happening in Mexico and Central America,” says Robert J. Bunker, who studies crime and terrorism as CEO of the Counter-Opfor Corp. He sees the real threat not as armed violence against the state, but the fact that the cartels “use corruption so effectively—corruption is far more deadly than violence. When they corrupt your institutions, you don’t know who the good guys are and who the bad guys are.”
But drug cartels and criminal gangs are hardly the only issues to spur American and European policy planners to look at the region. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez—who for the past 12 years has been tightening his grip over the country’s media, industry and military—recently announced a $4-billion arms loan from Russia. His government has already purchased a dozen Y-8 transport planes from China, as well as two Chinese-made, low-altitude, passive, phased-array radar systems.
The Chavez government is also involved in diplomatic dust-ups with the Colombians, breaking off relations while rattling sabers several times over the past two years. The election of former Colombian Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos as president in May 2010 initially appeared to be a cause of alarm in the region, as Chavez ominously warned of war. But Santos dialed tensions down, and the two leaders have opened a dialog.
In more positive news from the region, in November—two years after cutting diplomatic ties with Ecuador after Colombian troops conducted a cross-border raid on a FARC camp there—the two countries restored relations.
Brazil, the region’s emerging economic powerhouse, is a big story to watch as it becomes a political and economic force, even as it struggles with its own organized crime problem. The Brazilian government is waging what amounts to an urban counterinsurgency campaign against the gangs that operate in the sprawling urban slums of its major cities. The government recently undertook several large-scale military operations to wrest the slums from the grip of the gangs, a priority in the run-up to its hosting the 2016 Olympics.