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Narco-lonization: The Growing Threat of Narco-Municipality in Latin America

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Narco-lonization: The Growing Threat of Narco-Municipality in Latin America

 

Chris Telley

 

“The American Continents, by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintain, are henceforth not to be considered subject of future colonization…”

 

– President James Monroe, 1823[i]

 

The passage above, the heart of the United States’ “Monroe Doctrine,” goes on to define “any European power” as an antagonist in American colonial struggle. There is a new colonization occurring and it is just as much a threat to America’s security interests as were Spanish galleons and French imperialism. Today, the U.S. is seeing the proliferation of the mafia-state throughout Latin American partner nations.  The separation between transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) and actual, legitimate governments is thinning, even disappearing, in places critical to U.S. national security interests; the criminals are colonizing the government. The local, city, level is where growth in Latin America can emerge, but it is also where TCOs are winning their fights against the state; the mayoral level of government sovereignty is where any campaign of competition in the region must center.[ii]

 

The criminal micro-sovereignty is a diametric opposite of the Westphalian ideal, and offers a powerfully sustainable, but morally repugnant, alternative to any modern governance model. This new insurgent is not interested in taking control of the state to enact a policy agenda or ideologic revolution but aims instead to cripple its host as a path toward business efficiency.[iii] The emergence of local narco-states increases risks to U.S. core interests in several areas including, but not limited to, degraded capacity to see and react to potential extremists or “Special Interest Aliens,” a proximate security threat to the Panama Canal, as well as a contested ability to influence transit and production zones for drugs.[iv] Perhaps a foremost concern among contemporary U.S. policymakers is the risk that insecurity often drives law-abiding citizens from their homes, which increases the flow of migrants north.[v]

 

Admiral Tidd, the Commander of U.S. Southern Command (USSOUTHCOM), recently declared his top concern was “illicit, often violent non-state” networks undermining partner nation sovereignty and security in Latin America.[vi] The power of enormous cashflows—not just from drugs, but from human, money, arms, and tobacco smuggling—has now drawn the two opponents, governance and crime, into a tight embrace. More than ever, actual drug smugglers are “running for—and winning—political office in rural areas”: this is Douglas Farah’s “narco-municipality paradigm.”[vii]  Similarly diagnosed in 2012 by Moisés Naim, the “Mafia State” features government officials enriching themselves and their networks “while exploiting the money, muscle, political influence, and global connections of criminal syndicates to cement and expand their own power.”[viii] Mafia states used to be a term that applied to our opponents or far-off fringe states such as Russia or Afghanistan. As Hugo Chavez took power, Venezuela became the prototypical case of TCO/government integration in Latin America; though much of his corruption was standard authoritarian kleptocracy, there are now over 30 military officers and civilian officials of the Maduro national government involved in drug trafficking.[ix]

 

Since Medellin cartel boss Pablo Escobar brazenly ran for office in Columbia’s legislature, legitimization of criminal authority has been a reality of democracy and narcotics trafficking living side-by-side. Narco-violence has often been able to sway candidates or prevent them from running; in 2013, half a dozen major municipalities simply had no candidates turn out because of the campaign of fear.[x] Tangentially, commercial corruption, like that associated with Peru’s recent presidential resignation, has long been a significant handicap for the Latin American state.[xi] Furthermore, the privatization of violence—wealthy citizens buying safety with militarized guard forces—further weakens the legitimacy of Westphalian government.[xii]

 

Contemporary narco-traffickers have come to understand that controlling, rather than corrupting or co-opting, political office can better enable their operations and allow regional integration and efficiency.[xiii] Organized crime has infested local institutions to the point wherein governance is nearly impossible. The mayors are able to dedicate the use of airstrips, make inroads with judges, act as money launderers, and assist in eluding the gaze of security forces.[xiv] Now gangs like MS-13 are directly funding, if not outright participating in, local mayoral elections.[xv] The process is worst in remote areas, where state institutions have trouble reaching citizens in the first place.[xvi]

 

The change, and the challenges, are greatest in the “Northern Triangle” of Central America. Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador constitute a “strategic transit point” over which Mexican, Columbian, Peruvian and Venezuelan groups fight over shipment routes and authority.[xvii] In El Salvador, the mayors of San Francisco Gotera, Metapán, Pasaquina, and Santos Ernesto Luna have been sentenced for, indicted on, or have fled from drug trafficking charges.[xviii] [xix][xx] In Honduras, authorities have investigated more than 30 local politicians for having ties to drug trafficking.[xxi] The most brazen is Jose Adalid Gonzalez, a mayor from north-central Honduras, who was arrested for leading a network called “Los Banegas.”[xxii] There is a long history of Huistas gangsters infiltrating the political process, but most of Guatemala’s corruption problems were simple graft and fraud.[xxiii] So, the degradation of Guatemala has been quieter and slower than the others but now, according to the Guatemalan ambassador to Mexico, “the Co-option of local power by organized crime is a fact.” [xxiv]

 

This local threat adaptation comes at a time when traditional tools for dealing with adversary networks are losing steam. Thanks to some of our successes in killing and capturing cartel leaders, the current fragmentation of the criminal environment has driven the money and power of illicit trade to be decentralized, empowering local strongmen.[xxv] The financial weapons that proved so effective during the war on terror are not necessarily able to deal with the complexities of cryptocurrency. Imprisonment, the end state of most of our policies, has led to mass incarceration of non-violent users and low-level dealers but has failed to reduce crime rates; the process often provides a recruiting ground for the gangs.[xxvi] What’s more, countering threats like Hezbollah and Iran requires the U.S. to rely on cooperation from local governments, the very target of these narco-municipalities. They, unlike the United States, do not classify Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.[xxvii]

 

The threat groups have even started showing a proclivity for Hezbollah-like tactics designed to ingratiate themselves with the local populace. The Zetas have sponsored a Children’s Day parade; they, and the Gulf Cartel, handed out food after Hurricane Ingrid.[xxviii] In the Northern Triangle, the town of La Reforma in Guatemala got a new hospital[xxix] and the town of Dolce Nombre de Maria, in El Salvador, is a now “sparkling burg” whose city buildings were recently appointed with Corinthian Columns.[xxx] All the while, body counts from gunfights and executions are reaching “civil war levels.”[xxxi] Between escalating violence, threat adaptation, and the generationally complex problem of illicit trafficking, separating the narcos and the state, at the local level, is a difficult crusade to undertake.

 

If, as the National Defense Strategy insists, “our network of alliances and partnerships remain[s] the backbone of global security,” then TCO control of local governance threatens America’s vital interests.[xxxii] Viewed through a Monroe Doctrine lens, the nexus of local narco-municipalities and foreign competitor influence may even constitute an attack on American sovereignty. All of the countries affected are treaty allies.[xxxiii] This convergence reduces U.S. ability to safeguard our economic interests, form coalitions, and threatens our permissive access, whether to address disease, natural disaster, or to meet state level threat actors. In addition to interest or access, the threat in Latin America is human tragedy: torture, poverty, starvation, child soldiers, disease, trafficking in people and body parts, as well as the medieval state of human security. [xxxiv] The threat groups have been decapitating victims almost as long as Jihadi terrorists and were burning victims alive before ISIS.[xxxv]

 

The challenge of narco-municipalities is daunting; the National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy make clear that “the United States must devote greater resources to dismantle transnational criminal organizations (TCOs)”  and the Department of Defense is “resisting authoritarian trends… and serving as [a] bulwark against instability.” [xxxvi] However, SOUTHCOM has been an “economy of force” effort since the Cold War competition with Russia and Cuba.[xxxvii] The U.S. strategy and authorization documents are already on the street. The U.S. is in the implementation stage of its decision-making framework, and there is, in the words of Deputy Asst. Secretary of State Pete Marocco, “no appetite for large-scale reconstruction.” [xxxviii] The SOUTHCOM commander has no delusions about the limitations on resources that will continue to plague his operations. [xxxix]

 

From the National Security Council down to the relevant federal bureaus and service commands, we need a redesign of our approach to Latin America; it needs to look at a whole of government campaign of irregular warfare.[xl] The administration has shown itself willing to shake things up, so we have an opportunity to question every assumption built up over decades of confirmation bias and hedging; the recently released Stabilization Assistance Review (SAR) is a case in point.[xli] This months-long study warrants follow-up efforts across DoD, Justice, and the intelligence community. Local stakeholders were a critical pillar of the SAR’s findings, but they are the ones under threat in a mafia state.[xlii]

 

Any redesign of our foreign policy towards Latin America must start at the local level, focusing all efforts on this key space, as Plan Columbia’s coca eradication singularly focused U.S. efforts a decade ago. An enterprise-level rewrite, centered on the new Joint Concept for Integrated Campaigning, places all options on the table, from addressing civil governance and tax revenues to judicial system resilience.[xliii] Security cooperation can look beyond a simple focus on weapons training and helicopters but shift provision of, and training on, high-end software tools; advisors can move from “information sharing” to fusion of that information. The administration could also take the full measure of radical change to demand side policies. Finally, a popular SOUTHCOM mantra is “it takes a network to defeat a network”; a renewed network should attempt all possible public/private synchronizing and must integrate media interactions at all possible levels.[xliv]

 

The proliferation of a mafia state, similarly “gray” to the hybrid threats of Eastern Europe or the South China Sea, requires a relook at how we address conditions in the region. As testament to the social breakdown, homicides in Latin America are rising far faster than anywhere else, expected to top 35 per 100,000 by 2030, even as murder is declining elsewhere.[xlv] The city can be the source of economic growth, and society development, in Latin America but the neuvo-insurgency of the mafia state is smothering this hope. The component command, and its joint, interagency, and intergovernmental partners must reassess how their existing missions and core competencies can be brought to bear without national mobilization. Though the local—mayoral—rule of law does not “fit neatly into our strategic frameworks,” as ADM Tidd recently remarked of so many SOUTHCOM challenges, it is the foundation on which regional security conditions rest.[xlvi]

 

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and not necessarily those of the U.S. Department of Defense or U.S. Army.

 

End Notes

 

[i] James Monroe, “Seventh Annual Message to Congress” (December 2, 1823) http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=29465

[ii] MD Staff, “Better Cities in Latin America and the Caribbean are Essential for More Productivity and Growth.” (Modern Diplomacy, June 13, 2018) https://moderndiplomacy.eu/2018/06/13/better-cities-in-latin-america-and-the-caribbean-are-essential-for-more-productivity-and-growth/

[iii] This definition of insurgent is slightly altered in that the threat organization aims at implicit, rather than the explicit, “overthrow of a constituted government through the use of subversion and armed conflict” from Joint Publication 1-2; Nils Gilman, “The Twin Insurgency” (Beyond Convergence, World Without Order. Edited by Hilary Matfess and Michael Miklaucic. Center for Complex Operation, Washington D.C. 2017) 54-55

[iv] Special Interest Aliens (SIA) are “foreign national[s] originating from a country with potential or established terrorist links.” According to the USSOUTHCOM 2018 Posture Statement.

[v] Douglas Farah and Carl Meacham, “Alternative Governance in the Northern Triangle and Implications for U.S. Foreign Policy, Finding Logic within Chaos,” (Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, DC, 2015) https://csis-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/legacy_files/files/publication/150911_Farah_AlternativeGovernance_Web.pdf

[vi] Kurt W. Tidd, “Prepared Remarks: Adm. Tidd at Center for Naval Analysis” (Center for Naval, Washington D.C. June 7, 2018) http://www.southcom.mil/Media/Speeches-Transcripts/Article/1543839/prepared-remarks-adm-tidd-at-center-for-naval-analysis/

[vii] Jordan Timmerman, “In Some Latin American Countries, Organized Crime Advances Through City Hall” (CityLab, May 13, 2016) https://www.citylab.com/equity/2016/05/in-some-latin-american-countries-organized-crime-advances-through-city-hall/482580/

[viii] Moisés Naím, “Mafia States: Organized Crime Takes Office” (Foreign Affairs, Vol. 91, No. 3 (MAY/JUNE 2012) 101

[ix] Venezuela Investigative Unit, “Drug Trafficking Within the Venezuelan Regime: The ‘Cartel of the Suns” (Insight Crime, May 17, 2018) https://www.insightcrime.org/investigations/drug-trafficking-venezuelan-regime-cartel-of-the-sun/

[x] John P. Sullivan, "Insecurity, Impunity, and the Narcostate," in Robert J. Bunker and John P. Sullivan. Narcoterrorism and Impunity in the Americas. (Xlibris, Bloomington, IL, 2016). 

[xi] Ray Sanchez, Mayra Cuevas and Flora Charner, “Peruvian President Kuczynski resigns amid corruption scandal (CNN, March 21, 2018) https://www.cnn.com/2018/03/21/americas/peru-president-pedro-pablo-kuczynski-resigns/index.html

[xii] José de Arimatéia da Cruz. “Strategic Insights: The Strategic Relevance of Latin America in the U.S. National Security Strategy” (U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute. Carlisle PA. March 2018) https://ssi.armywarcollege.edu/index.cfm/articles/Strategic-Relevance-of-Latin-America/2018/03/14

[xiii] Jordan Timmerman, “In Some Latin American Countries, Organized Crime Advances Through City Hall” (CityLab, May 13, 2016) https://www.citylab.com/equity/2016/05/in-some-latin-american-countries-organized-crime-advances-through-city-hall/482580/

[xiv] Hal Brands, Crime, Violence, and the Crisis in Guatemala, (U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute. Carlisle PA. May 2010) 16; George Grayson, The Evolution of Los Zetas, (U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute. Carlisle PA. April 2014.)  21

[xv] Tristan Clavel “Honduras Trial Alleges Frightening First: MS13 Campaign Funding” (InsightCrime, June 15, 2018) https://www.insightcrime.org/news/analysis/honduras-trial-ties-between-mayor-ms13-first-time/

[xvi] Hal Brands, Crime, Violence, and the Crisis in Guatemala, (U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute. Carlisle PA. May 2010) 16

[xvii] George Grayson, The Evolution of Los Zetas, (U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute. Carlisle PA. April 2014) 19

[xviii] Héctor Silva Ávalos. “Shadow of Perrones Looms over El Salvador Mayor’s Arrest” (Insight Crime, June 1, 2017) https://www.insightcrime.org/news/brief/shadow-perrones-looms-el-salvador-mayor-arrest/

[xix] Scott Squires, “Fugitive El Salvador Mayor Accused of Aiding Transnational Organized Crime” (Insight Crime, March 19, 2018) https://www.insightcrime.org/news/brief/fugitive-mayor-transnational-organized-crime/

[xx] Mimi Yagoub, “El Salvador Mayor Sentenced to 13 Years For Drug Trafficking” (Insight Crime, January 7, 2016) https://www.insightcrime.org/news/brief/el-salvador-mayor-sentenced-to-13-years-for-drug-trafficking/

[xxi] Michael Lohmuller “Dozens of Honduras Mayors Under Investigation for Criminal Ties” (Insight Crime, April 10, 2015)https://www.insightcrime.org/news/brief/dozens-of-honduras-mayors-under-investigation-for-criminal-ties/

[xxii] Mimi Yagoub, “Honduras Arrest Highlights Importance of Being Mayor” (Insight Crime, October 1, 2015) https://www.insightcrime.org/news/brief/honduras-arrest-highlights-importance-of-being-mayor/

[xxiii] InSight Crime, “Guatemala Elites and Organized Crime: The ‘Huistas” (Insight Crime, September 1, 2016) https://www.insightcrime.org/investigations/guatemala-elites-and-organized-crime-the-huistas/;

[xxiv] Hal Brands, Crime, Violence, and the Crisis in Guatemala, (U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute. Carlisle PA. May 2010) 10-16

[xxv] Evan Ellis. “Transnational Organized Crime in Latin America and the Caribbean: From Evolving Threats and Responses to Integrated Adaptive Solutions," (Hudson Institute, Mar 29, 2018) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r1tl731j6I8

[xxvi] Harold Trinkunas .“The network effect: Trafficking in illicit drugs, money, and people in Latin America” (Brookings Institute. December 3, 2015) https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2015/12/03/the-network-effect-trafficking-in-illicit-drugs-money-and-people-in-latin-america/

[xxvii] Assessments, “Hezbollah in South America: The Threat to Businesses” (STRATFOR, Feb 5, 2018) https://worldview.stratfor.com/article/hezbollah-south-america-threat-businesses

[xxviii] George Grayson, The Evolution of Los Zetas, (U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute. Carlisle PA. May 2010) 29

[xxix] Hal Brands, Crime, Violence, and the Crisis in Guatemala, (U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute. Carlisle PA. May 2010)16

[xxx] George Grayson, The Evolution of Los Zetas, (U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute. Carlisle PA. April 2014) 21

[xxxi] Hal Brands, Crime, Violence, and the Crisis in Guatemala, (U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute. Carlisle PA. May 2010)16

[xxxii] The National Security Council. “The National Security Strategy.” (The White House. December 18, 2017) 2

[xxxiii] Office of the Legal Adviser Treaty Affairs, “U.S. Collective Defense Arrangements” (Department of State) https://www.state.gov/s/l/treaty/collectivedefense/

[xxxiv] Max Manwaring. Street gangs: The New Urban Insurgency. (U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute. Carlisle PA. May 2005)28

[xxxv] Mia De Graff and Chris Sprago. 'We stacked them like a grill': Cartel hitmen tell how they burned 43 (Daily Mail Online, 8 November 2014) http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2827133/We-stacked-like-grill-Chillingly-unemotional-accounts-three-Mexican-gang-members-explaining-burned-alive-43-Mexican-students-local-mayor-s-wife-demanded-taught-lesson.html

[xxxvi] The National Security Council. “The National Security Strategy.” (The White House. December 18, 2017)

[xxxvii] Robert Kaplan, Imperial Grunts. (Vintage Books, New York, 2005) 45

[xxxviii] Pete Marocco, Keynote Address. (Jack D. Gordon Institute for Public Policy, Jun 6, 2018) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=23uNhTiwnaM&list=PL8fXWHdWtwaObeC6pjTNiZ_AZm8YhUcFk&index=4;

[xxxix] Kurt Tidd. Posture Statement of the Commander U.S. Southern Command before Congress. (Senate Armed Services Committee, Washington D.C. 15 February 2018)

[xl] Hal Brands, Crime, Violence, and the Crisis in Guatemala, (U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute. Carlisle PA. May 2010) 16

[xli] Teresa Welsh, “USAID, State, and DOD to release first-ever Stabilization Assistance Review” (DEVEX,  16 April 2018) https://www.devex.com/news/usaid-state-and-dod-to-release-first-ever-stabilization-assistance-review-92535

[xlii] Pete Marocco, Keynote Address. (Jack D. Gordon Institute for Public Policy, Jun 6, 2018) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=23uNhTiwnaM&list=PL8fXWHdWtwaObeC6pjTNiZ_AZm8YhUcFk&index=4

[xliii] Hal Brands, Crime, Violence, and the Crisis in Guatemala, (U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute. Carlisle PA. May 2010) 16

[xliv] Lisa Ferdinando. “Southcom Official: 'Friendly Network' Critical in Confronting Transregional Threats” SOUTHCOM, Mexico, April 27 2017) http://www.southcom.mil/MEDIA/NEWS-ARTICLES/Article/1165834/southcom-official-friendly-network-critical-in-confronting-transregional-threats/

[xlv] Robert Muggah and Ilona Szabó de Carvalho, “There’s a cure for Latin America’s murder epidemic – and it doesn’t involve more police or prisons” (World Economic Forum on Latin America, 04 Apr 2017) https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2017/04/there-s-a-cure-for-latin-america-s-murder-epidemic-and-it-doesn-t-involve-more-police-or-prisons/

[xlvi] Admiral Kurt Tidd, Remarks for the Naval War College, (US Southern Command, March 27, 2018) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=whJwZqNn4qs&t=376s

 

 

About the Author(s)

MAJ Chris Telley is an Army information operations officer assigned to the Naval Postgraduate School. His assignments have included theater engagement at U.S. Army Japan and advanced technology integration with the U.S. Air Force. He tweets at @chris_telley.