Ronald Reagan helped to usher in a hopeful wave of democratization in Latin America. In one country after another, multi-party elections ended decades of single-party rule and military dictatorship. But today, that legacy is under threat – and so is our own homeland. The southern front in the War on Terror, which runs through Latin America’s institutions of state, is cracking under a combined assault of political revolution, Islamist terrorism, and the world’s most heavily armed drug cartels.
On Colombia’s frontiers, the radical “Bolivarian” governments of Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia have embraced Iran, and are in league both with revolutionary terrorist movements such as the FARC and with drug traffickers. In the Caribbean zone, states are drowning in a tidal wave of drug- and weapons-smuggling – and increased extremism among its Muslim immigrant communities. In Mexico, massive drug cartels compete for control of the drug trade, deploying dizzying numbers of heavily armed paramilitaries. The violence has begun to reach our own cities.
There may be no direct connection between recent kidnappings in Phoenix and high-profile visits by Hugo Chávez to Tehran. But connect the dots, and you will see a transnational extremist-terrorist wave challenging the institutions of liberal democracy in Latin America. If that wave begins to win in Latin America, we will soon be facing it here at home, with potentially grave consequences for our security and our way of life.
America’s “defense-in-depth” against this wave consists of Colombia, Central America, and Mexico. All three lines of defense are under assault and in danger of failing.
IRAN’S ALLIES TAKE ON COLOMBIA
In the Western Hemisphere, the most dangerous development of the last decade is perhaps the alliance between Venezuela and Iran, which has allowed the mullahs to expand dramatically their reach in Latin America. Hezbollah has long been present among the immigrant Syrian and Lebanese communities of the Tri-Border Area between Brazil and Argentina. Hezbollah has been linked to bombings of the Israeli Embassy in Argentina in 1992 and the Jewish cultural center in Buenos Aires two years later, in which a total of 115 people were killed and 500 injured. Hezbollah’s illicit activities in this region of South America were arrestingly documented in a 2002 New Yorker article by Jeffrey Goldberg.
The problem has only grown more serious since then. The public love-fest between Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez is just the tip of a sinister iceberg. Weekly flights from Teheran to Caracas are not monitored for personnel or cargo, in violation of international norms, mimicking the process by which Beirut’s International Airport became a hub of the terrorist underworld. Iran’s intelligence services cooperate with those of Venezuela, which have kept busy in recent years helping the radical regimes of Bolivia and Ecuador purge themselves of anyone with ties of sympathy to the U.S.
In the wake of Israel’s Gaza operation, there were signs of coordination on propaganda: Chávez had a chilling warning for Venezuela’s large Jewish community: “Tell your government in Israel to stop this genocide and leave Palestinian lands.” A Kristallnacht-style attack on the main Jewish synagogue in Venezuela was carried out by a large group of thugs that spent most of the night wreaking havoc in the compound before making off with computers that contain the names and addresses of most of Venezuela’s Jews. Chávez denied responsibility and blamed the opposition, just as he did when bands of pro-Chávez thugs destroyed the facilities of Venezuela’s last vestiges of independent media.
The “Bolivarian” revolution of Hugo Chávez – essentially, a reprise of the Cuban revolution in slow motion – has been mimicked in Ecuador and Bolivia, all of which have embraced Iran, revolutionary movements such as the FARC, and narco-traffickers. Those are the elements of the narco-radical threat that Colombia has been fighting for decades – and which it continues to face now on its frontiers, where neighboring governments have become, de facto, enemy governments. Last year, in the course of a raid by Colombia’s armed forces that killed one of the FARC’s key leaders, computers were captured that – as later verified by Interpol – contain clear evidence of high-ranking Venezuelan officials’ offering weapons and money to the FARC – an organization that has put Colombia through a terrifying decades-long civil war.
Colombia appears to have turned the corner against the FARC, and to some extent also in the drug war. The once-nightmarish city of Medellín has become a showcase of President Alvaro Uribe’s success in fighting the enemies of democracy in his own country. Combining “people power,” through civil society and cultural programs, with “alliance power,” through the U.S.-sponsored Plan Colombia, Uribe has been a rare success in our hemisphere’s War on Terror. But Plan Colombia has now largely run its course. Meanwhile, the narco-radical forces continue to get stronger, and President Obama’s left-wing base has weakened America’s support for Colombia at a critical juncture. The travesty of our failure to pass the Colombia Free Trade Agreement remains a serious self-inflicted wound in our fight against terrorism, a clear sign that the U.S. government has yet to grasp the gravity of the situation facing us in Latin America – or the precious value of allies in dealing with it.
TERRORISTS OF THE CARIBBEAN
In the Caribbean Sea, the trade winds now bring drugs and weapons – and Islamist terrorists. The seaborne and airborne smuggling from South America to Central America and the Caribbean islands is out of control. The governments of Central America are undermined by drug cartels with easy access to corrupt officials, and subverted by the electoral wins of radical Chávez allies such as Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua and the FMLN just this week in El Salvador – another ally gone. The region’s tiny, impoverished governments can hardly refuse Hugo Chávez’s offers of life-sustaining petroleum, and squirm at the “favors” he asks in return.
On top of this problem, the region’s large Muslim-immigrant communities – as well as local converts to Islam – have proven tragically susceptible to extremist proselytizing and recruitment. In 1990, an Islamist group in Trinidad and Tobago, Jammat al Muslimeen, staged an abortive coup against the U.S.-friendly government there, killing 24 people. In 2007, responding to complaints of apparent terrorist training activities, authorities raided the group’s five-acre compound, seizing weapons and grenades.
In June 2007, a plot to bomb the fuel-depot system of JFK International Airport was foiled, preventing another mass-casualty attack in New York City. Of the four terror suspects arrested, one was from Trinidad and the others from nearby Guyana. “Although Caribbean societies remain mostly a harmonious mosaic of ethnicities and faiths,” writes Amanda Farfel of the American Jewish Committee, “the JFK plotters, late converts to Islam, demonstrate the susceptibility of some local Muslims to the messages of international radical Islamic organizations.” One of the JFK-plot suspects was arrested in Trinidad on a plane bound for Caracas. His wife told authorities that his intended final destination was Iran.
THE CARTELS VS. MEXICO
The Mexican elections of 2007 should have been a wake-up call for the United States. Current president Felipe Calderón only narrowly defeated the left-wing candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a Chávez sympathizer. The election of López Obrador would have brought the tentacles of the Bolivarian revolution and its Iranian allies right up to America’s border with Mexico. Allies of Venezuela and Iran may yet come to power in Mexico – borne aloft by support from drug cartels. The U.S. shows little sign of preparing for such a perfect storm.
Even with a staunch U.S. ally as the president of Mexico, the situation in that country already poses an unacceptable threat to U.S. security. Americans have learned to live with embarrassingly high levels of violence in places like Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles – but cartel violence is different. It is paramilitary. It involves tactically sophisticated assassinations and kidnappings, conducted by well-trained former military and police, often in the open, sometimes on a large scale, and usually with a lot of firepower.
Cartels don’t run from the police. They target the police. Indeed, in many parts of Latin America right up to the Rio Grande, they control the police. Some 7,000 troops are being sent to Ciudad Juárez, right across the border from El Paso, Texas, because the local police have lost control of the city. After narco-terrorists warned that they would kill one policeman every 48 hours, the police chief of Juárez resigned.
According to the Washington Times, the Pentagon estimates that Mexico’s drug cartels have as many as 100,000 foot soldiers, “an army that rivals Mexico’s armed forces,” and they “threaten to turn the country into a narco-state.” A thousand people were killed in Mexican violence in January of this year alone. Even the beheadings and unspeakable torture practices that became signatures of al-Qaeda in Iraq have arrived on our southern front; the cartels have taken to dissolving the bodies of many victims in vats of acid.
According to U.S. officials, Mexico now ranks with Iran and Pakistan as among the top threats to U.S. national security – but there are few indications that U.S. policy actually gives Mexico anything like the high priority it deserves. The U.S. has lavished about $10 billion on Pakistan’s military since 2001. We are about to send some $900 million to Gaza for reconstruction assistance, and Congress recently refused to require that the money doesn’t wind up enriching Hamas. But to help our friends in Mexico fight narco-terrorism in their own country so that we don’t have to face it here at home, we can manage only a pittance of barely $500 million over several years – a pittance sweetened with insults.
When the Bush Administration’s Merida Initiative – a baby step in the annals of security cooperation – came before Congress last year, some Democrats insisted that money needed for sophisticated helicopters, communications equipment, and intelligence gathering in Mexico be shifted to human-rights training for Mexican security forces. On the other side of the aisle, some Republicans wondered why we should help Mexico when its effort to stem immigration remains so ineffective. One answer is that both the money and the weapons that make the cartels so powerful come from America. The Mexicans were so offended by the tenor of the congressional debate surrounding Merida that they nearly rejected the initiative.
Now Mexican narco-terrorism has started to arrive in America’s own cities. There are reports of a sudden spike of kidnappings in Phoenix, Ariz. U.S. authorities recently arrested 52 cartel members in a single week. The cartels already control much of the distribution in the U.S.; now they are moving to control “retail” sales. The sophisticated networks they are developing – virtual pipelines that allow them to smuggle whatever people or things they please into and out of the U.S. – could be just as useful to Islamist terrorists. One wonders how long it will take for Hugo Chávez to start connecting the dots among his various friends.
PARTNERSHIP CAPACITY BUILDING
After the attacks of September 11, 2001, the Bush administration asked itself a basic question: “How do we fight a war against an enemy that is present in 60 or more countries with whom we are not at war?” We focused on “partnership capacity building” as the answer.
Behind the scenes of the high-profile fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, partnership capacity building has in fact been the essence of America’s response to the attacks of 9/11. In scores of countries across the Islamic world, U.S. security-cooperation programs have bolstered the institutions of governance – training and equipping security forces, bolstering administration of justice, developing education programs, even assisting with budget management. We have countered a transnational threat with a transnational effort that seeks to create points of connectivity between our government and those of our partners – e.g., our military and theirs, our law enforcement and theirs, and our intelligence services and theirs.
These efforts – developed in the fight against terrorism across the Islamic world – need to become the hallmark of our fight against narco-radical-Islamist terrorism in Latin America. The same life-and-death struggle against narco-terrorist networks and violent revolution that gripped Colombia for decades has arrived in Mexico, our last line of defense. We have to defeat it there, if we do not want to face it here.
We have to strengthen our ties of alliance, cooperation, and friendship with the countries of Latin America. But in extending that hand of friendship we should not shy from calling on them to do their share. Latin America’s democracies remain desperately poor because their societies continue to embrace cultures of dependency, cults of personality, and corruption. Until Latin America becomes a more fertile ground for good governance, it will keep producing poverty, crime, radicalism, and terrorism.
— Mario Loyola, a former adviser in the U.S. Senate and at the Pentagon, is a visiting fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a frequent contributor to National Review.