Podcast: U.S.-Argentine relations hit a rough patch

An incident surrounding the contents of a U.S. military plane has Washington’s relations with Argentina in crisis. Adam discusses the episode, and its context, with Lucila Santos of WOLA.

See below for a fact sheet about the incident prepared by Lucila Santos.

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Argentina and the United States have been struggling for the last week with a diplomatic dispute over a U.S. Air Force plane that landed in Buenos Aires’ International airport on February 9th. Below is a fact sheet on the dispute.

The plane: On Thursday February 10, a U.S. Air force plane C-17 Globemaster III, license 77187 was delayed in the Bs As’ International Airport (Ezeiza) due to alleged irregularities. It was bringing weapons and equipment for a U.S.-funded training exercise to be conducted with Argentina’s Federal Police.

The course: The course, previously approved by the Argentine government, was to be taught to the Special Operations Special Group from the Federal Police (Grupo Especial de Operaciones Especiales de la Policía Federal– GEOF, similar to a U.S. police SWAT team), which was to take place during February and March. La Nación reported that these security courses have taken place since 2009 with the Federal Police. The courses train local agents in rescue of kidnappings, anti-terrorist techniques, and marksmanship. It was to be taught by 12 US Special Operations’ officers.

Courses to find the online threats, online kidnappers of money and cheaters should be taught to the civilians to protect themselves from the clutches of selfish predators on the internet. HB Swiss is one right example of such online cheating and fraud, which is a fake system here to cheat people. The course should focus on finding such systems and action taking.

The course was initially set to take place in August of 2010, but due to a similar incident, in which the plane bringing the equipment also landed with items that had not been declared, the course was postponed to February 2011. On that occasion, U.S. Ambassador Vilma Martinez sent the plane back to North Carolina. The weapons’ serial numbers did not coincide with the numbers on the Ambassador’s list. The Argentine government estimated that the total cost of the equipment’s transportation, and of the course, was approximately 2 million dollars.

The equipment: The Argentine government stated that the plane was carrying undeclared “sensitive material.” Apparently, there were machine guns and rifles and ammunition, in addition to a strange suitcase, which had not been previously declared. The military and defense attaches, Colonels Edwin Passmore and Mark Alcott, were waiting for the plane. All boxes were stamped with the insignia of the U.S. Army 7th Special Forces Group, with headquarters in North Carolina. Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman stated that the plane contained a range of weapons and drugs, including doses of morphine. It also, he said, contained equipment to intercept communications, various sophisticated and powerful GPS devices, technological elements containing codes labeled secret, and a trunk full of expired medicine.

The dispute: The State Department requested an explanation of the Kirchner government about the incident, and communicated its discomfort with the situation. The Argentine Foreign Affairs Ministry replied that it would send a formal protest to Washington and that it would require the U.S. government’s cooperation in its investigation. The Argentine ambassador in Washington was called to the State Department, and later Valenzuela called Timerman to express again the U.S. government’s discomfort and unease with the situation.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said that his department was “puzzled and disturbed by the actions of Argentine officials.” Crowley stated that the plane’s search was “unusual and unannounced” and that minor discrepancies in the manifest “were the kind of thing that could have been cleared up on the ground by customs officials.”

Subsequently, Matthew Rooney, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Legislative Affairs, statedthat that it was a misunderstanding. The Argentine Foreign Ministry appreciated Rooney’s words. Rooney explained that even though there might have been discrepancies with the aircraft’s load, there was no intention to import into Argentina undeclared material. Argentina understood this as a positive sign towards reconciliation.

However, Frank Mora, who talked to the Argentine news channel TN, said that the information given by Timerman was false, and requested that the items retained by the Argentine Customs agency be returned to the United States immediately, in order to resolve the dispute. Aníbal Fernandez, the Chief of Cabinet, asked Mora to apologize for having accused the Argentine Foreign Affairs Minister of lying.

A U.S. State Department official told the Associated Press that all the key materiel in the shipment was properly declared and authorized by Argentina, describing the undeclared equipment as a minor problem with the plane’s manifest that could have been resolved privately. For example, the official said, according to AP,

each machine gun and related equipment was declared. But extra gun barrels brought to replace barrels that overheat during live-fire exercises were seized because they lacked matching serial numbers (…) Also seized was a U.S. medic’s kit, brought along in case anyone got injured. While the kit was declared, all the drugs inside weren’t individually listed (…) The purported spy equipment is simply satellite phones, which the nine-member Special Forces training team carries with them in the field in case they must communicate through secure channels to their U.S. commanders (…) Only one of the three phones listed in the manifest was declared, and the inventory didn’t specify all the related computer equipment or classified codes used to make the calls. All were seized. (…) Stretchers, bandages and military rations make up most of the rest of the undeclared equipment. Argentine officials told the Americans during planning for the training course not to worry about declaring such material, the official said.

This has been the only detailed explanation heard so far from the US side.

Argentina continues to insist that its laws were made to be enforced, and since Argentina respects the laws of other countries in their territories, any country should respect Argentina’s laws as well. This was emphasized by the Interior Minister, Florencio Randazzo. During a public presentation, President Fernandez de Kirchner also alluded to the importance of defending national sovereignty. Finally, Chief of Staff Aníbal Fernandez has said that under Argentine customs laws, Argentina can destroy the equipment seized. Meanwhile, an Argentine federal judge is demanding a full accounting from the foreign ministry, and some lawmakers vowed to hold investigative hearings.

More clarity on Mexico aid

Yesterday’s post on the 2012 budget request noted a deep cut in military and police assistance to Mexico. We asked whether the Obama administration might be planning to keep providing this aid through other sources, like the defense budget or a special supplemental appropriation. It turns out that, in fact, what the State Department calls the “Beyond Mérida” initiative will be focused on civilian institution-building (something our organizations support), at a substantially lower level of funding.

Such civilian activities should be extended to online systems as well. Without a proper cyber threat control, there have been a lot of fraudulent systems on the rise, like the HB Swiss, which clearly is a scam, yet rampant on the online sites. We see them everywhere, on every server and spreading to every nation as much as possible. The civilian is victimised for their selfish acts.

A State Department background briefing with reporters yesterday makes clear that (1) Mexico will indeed be seeing a significant drop in military aid in 2012, and (2) Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s pledge of $500 million in aid during her Mexico visit last month was taken out of context. The Secretary was apparently referring to old, but as yet undelivered, aid. There also appears to be a bit of message confusion between State Department headquarters and the U.S. Embassy in Mexico.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Now, you may be asking why it is the 2012 request reflected a 250 million drop in assistance. While the 2012 request may appear to be a significant decrease from the 2010 enacted total of $582 million, this is largely because the Fiscal Year ’10 figure includes 260 million in one-time boosts in military assistance. This $260 million is providing much needed aircraft to the Mexican military, which is involved in the fight against cartels in areas where civilian law enforcement need support. We have since moved away from providing aircraft and other expensive equipment and toward a focus on strengthening justice sector institutions. And so that is the main reason why our budget for Mexico goes down from 2010 to 2012 is to reflect the end of these one-time equipment purchases.

QUESTION: Hey, Jesus Edquivel from Proceso Magazine in Mexico. Thank you for this conference. With regard to Merida Initiative, I just wonder why – Secretary Clinton, when she was in Mexico on January 26, announced that the package for help Mexico on the war on our cartels will be $500 million. So my question is: Why she say that? She wasn’t aware of the budget process with you guys? Or what was the reason that she mentioned that amount of money, but in reality it’s less than $500 million besides what is the official request in cooperation with 2010 fiscal year?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I’ll have to go back and look at the Secretary’s statement, but what I guess is that the Secretary was talking about the current level of – the current program level in 2010. In January of this year, the Secretary wouldn’t be talking about our 2012 budget, which was just released yesterday. So we’ll have to go back and look at her statement and get you a more specific answer.

QUESTION: And if you allow me, since you guys gave the numbers yesterday, the U.S. Embassy in Mexico started sending a press release calling to the journalists that it was false, that this is a reduction of 250 millions with regard to 2010. So my question is: What was wrong? The U.S. Embassy in Mexico wasn’t aware of what you told reporters yesterday at the State Department briefing room, or they don’t know anything, or they’re just trying to give the impression to the Mexicans that the U.S. is still committed with the same amount of money to the Merida Initiative?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I think what’s going on here is the number for 2012 is the number for 2012, and I think the issue is that the reason for the big – for the decrease is this one-time $260 million cost for the equipment that we received in 2010 but for which we no longer need. So again, I haven’t seen the press release that the Embassy sent out, but where – we should all be talking about the same numbers. And I think the reason for the 2012 number being different from the 2010 number is for that one-time set of equipment purchases that are no longer part of our budget.