As organized crime and drug trafficking groups extend their reach across Latin America, some in Washington suggest that militaries should play a bigger role in the fight against these threats. Their argument, however, is based on five false assumptions and conceptual misunderstandings. These assumptions must be corrected and clarified to paint an accurate picture of the region’s biggest security threat.
Assumption 1: Drug trafficking and organized crime exist evenly across Latin America and have the same effect in every country in the region.
Quite to the contrary, drug trafficking and all other types of illicit transport have vastly varied presence and impact across Latin America. In 2008, the International Crisis Group (ICG) published a report describing each country’s role in drug production and trafficking. It found sharp differences between different sub-regions of the hemisphere.
The ICG characterized the region’s heterogeneous narcotrafficking patterns as follows:
Largely in response to massive U.S. demand, Mexico is the site of not only drug production but also traffickers moving illicit drugs northward. Mexico has three main trafficking groups and has also organized groups of hitmen. They operate across Mexico, and are responsible for moving drugs into the United States.
Because of their geographical position in transit zones, Central American and Caribbean gangs are generally more involved in facilitating the trans-shipment of illicit goods, and less with production.
To the contrary, the Andean countries are known to be mostly producers of drugs, but also participate in trafficking. The most notorious case is Colombia. While for decades Colombian cartels dominated drug markets (particularly cocaine), their role has diminished due to U.S.-supported anti-cartel efforts, an ongoing armed conflict, and Mexican cartels’ increased domination of trafficking. Today, Colombia is still the number-one cocaine producer, but there have been reductions and drug trafficking is decentralized among smaller trafficking groups.
Pressure on drug production in Colombia is leading to a rise in coca production elsewhere, particularly in Peru. According to ICG: “Peru remains the second largest coca-cultivating country, with 33 per cent of global leaf production”, and is also involved in cocaine production. Bolivia also produces coca leaf and cocaine.
As is the case in several countries across the region, however, the roles played by gangs in Peru and Bolivia have shifted over time and now include transport. Peru’s trafficking organizations have operated in “tightly organized, next-of kin groups,” but they have not reached the same level of organization as Mexican and Colombian gangs. ICG also describes how “Peruvian clans are the leading organizations in the export, transportation and distribution of cocaine and ‘paco’ in the booming drug markets of the Southern Cone.” Mexican illegal groups operate in Peru as well, where they are the ones carrying out drug exportations out of Peru. Colombian traffickers are also present in the Peruvian drug industry. Unlike Peru, “no large trafficking organizations are based in Bolivia, where small, compact, difficult-to-infiltrate family clans are the norm.” These operate mainly in La Paz, Cochabamba and Santa Cruz.
Unlike its neighbours, Ecuador is mainly a transit country, used as well for storage of Colombian and Peruvian drugs. The main drug being trafficked through Ecuador is thus cocaine. Groups involved in the illicit transportation of drugs are loosely aligned groups of Ecuadorians, Colombians and Peruvians. Last week, Ecuadorian police working with the DEA’s assistance, discovered a “narco-submarine” close to the border with Colombia, meant for cocaine transportation.
Venezuela is an important transit country because of its long and porous border with Colombia. There are no known local kingpins taking part in the transshipment of drugs, but according to the ICG, there is presumed participation of police and military forces.
In the last few years, Brazil has become the biggest cocaine and marihuana consumer market in South America. It is also “an important trans-shipment hub for cocaine to Europe and North America,” according to the ICG report. Colombian led groups that employ Brazilians to run the operations, are the ones in charge of trafficking drugs destined to Europe and North America. Brazilian criminals in turn are responsible for distribution and retailing. The most well known and larger in organization and structure involved in the drug business are Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC), Comando Vermelho, Terceiro Comando, and Terceiro Comando Puro. Worth mentioning is the fact that the ICG mentions no presence of Mexican illegal groups in Brazil.
Lastly, the Southern Cone is primarily a transit zone, but neither drug trafficking groups nor transnational organized crime networks have a strong presence in the sub-region. In Argentina, Peruvian organizations dominate most cocaine and “paco” distribution. Chile is also a transit zone for the US and according to ICG, “a trans-shipment point for larger cocaine shipments coming mostly from Colombia through Ecuador and Peru.”
The exception to this is Paraguay, the biggest marihuana producer in South America. It has always been used as the “region’s smuggling centre,” and is thus a key transit zone for Bolivian, Peruvian and Colombian cocaine en route to Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Europe. Family clans operate the illegal drug businesses. Paraguay is where most Brazilian traffickers hideout from police persecution.
Ultimately, drug production, illicit trafficking, and organized crime take diverse and dynamic shapes across the region, and there is certainly no monolithic or uniform “drug problem” awaiting a forceful solution.
Assumption 2: All police forces in Latin America are corrupt and inefficient in their attempts to maintain law and order and fighting drug trafficking.
This argument is frequently used to justify militaries’ participation in anti-drug missions. Although drug traffickers and organized crime agents have penetrated many countries’ police forces, in addition to being plagued by endemic corruption, other nations have strong professional law enforcement bodies capable of confronting internal threats.
Among them, Chile’s Carabineros police force is known to be one of the best law enforcement agencies in the region. Nicaragua’s community police forces are an exemplary success story. While many Latin American countries do not enjoy strong, transparent, or effective policing, we should view those that do as role models and not exceptions to an inescapable downward regional trend.
Assumption 3: Military forces are immune to corruption, and will be effective in combating drug trafficking and transnational organized crime.
Militaries do not have some fundamental characteristic that makes them innately better equipped against internal threats than are the region’s police forces. The ineffectiveness of police forces does not necessarily mean that the armed forces will be better able to confront illegal armed groups. In fact, it often means the opposite.
Many militaries in Latin America are small, and lack the capabilities and training to be effective against drug traffickers and organized crime groups. In some countries, they may be constitutionally prohibited from engaging in law enforcement-related activities.
Quite contrary to what we might hope, militaries are highly susceptible to corruption in certain contexts. Hector Saint Pierre has warned of the power that gangs still have over the armed forces, penetrating them through bribery and intimidation. When employed as police forces, military structures are even more vulnerable to corruption given low salaries and bad working conditions. The Brazilian daily O Globo, for example, has reported on military personnel selling weapons to traffickers. Similarly, the ICG’s report explains that pervasive corruption in Venezuela’s armed forces makes it difficult to stop trafficking of drugs through Venezuela. While it would be a mistake to assume that all Latin American police forces are free of corruption and inefficiency, it would be an even bigger error to assume that all militaries are immune from those ailments.
Assumption 4: Latin America is homogenous, and generalized security policies can be applied regionally.
Advocating the use of the military in counternarcotics across the region implies the assumption that all Latin American countries have relatively analogous defense and security systems. Said another way, to implement a one-size-fits-all militarized anti-drug strategy would require a certain level of systemic uniformity across countries. However, there are not one but many defense-system models in Latin America.
The Latin American Security and Defense Network (Red de Seguridad y Defensa de America Latina) has published “A Comparative Atlas of Defense in Latin America” which examines the defense system of each country in the region. Using the atlas as a principal source, we can see four main sub-regional tendencies regarding defense systems in Latin America.
The Southern Cone can be distinguished from the rest of the region for having the strongest, most professional defense systems. This is the case principally because Chile, Argentina and Uruguay all have constitutional legislation separating defense and police roles. Institutionally, these countries also have ministries, commanded by civilian leaders, for each force.
In Brazil’s case, the armed forces are primarily tasked with the external defense of the nation, but are not expressly prohibited by law from engaging in internal functions. This lack of legal precision has allowed for the use of the military within favelas to fight drug trafficking groups. The military has carried out other subsidiary functions in development like combating hoof-and-mouth disease in the southern region, distributing water in the semi-arid “nordestito”, and facilitating medical and dental attention to the riverbank population of the Amazon region.
While countries in the Andean sub-region (from Bolivia to Venezuela) have varying security and defense systems, they share an important commonality: their militaries are all-encompassing, multipurpose forces whose functions range from traditional national defense missions to law enforcement, development, and even business. For example, Bolivia’s armed forces take part in humanitarian programs focused on social inclusion, development, and national sovereignty. In addition to their traditional defense roles, they also guard borders and engage in counternarcotics missions. More extreme still, the most distinguishing characteristic of the Ecuadorian armed forces is their ownership of several businesses used to gain additional military financing. These include industrial corporations that produce ammunition, clothes, and shoes for military use; companies that develop car parts; an airline; a banana and shrimp export company; and supermarkets and banks, among others.
After the end of the conflicts that spanned the 1980s, the initial aims of Central America’s militaries were peacekeeping missions and support to civilian authorities in case of natural disasters. However, rising crime rates and pervasive violence in these countries has led to heavy military involvement in the fight against crime, gangs, and drug trafficking. In fact, unlike southern cone countries, the constitutions of El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Guatemala allow for the possibility of expanding military tasks to unconventional roles.
Finally, Mexico’s armed forces have always characterized themselves as one of the most professional forces in the region, proud to have never carried out a coup against a civilian government. However, as in Central America, the rise in violence caused by increasingly well-armed drug traffickers and organized crime groups has pushed the Mexican government to involve the military in counternarcotics. In addition, the armed forces are called to support citizens in cases of public need; carry out civic and social works aimed at the country’s progress; maintain public order; and offer assistance to people and their assets as well as with the reconstruction of areas affected by natural disasters.
Assumption 5: Fighting drug trafficking and organized crime can be equated with “citizen security.”
More than an assumption, this is a conceptual misunderstanding that confuses related but not equivalent phenomena. More and more we hear the term “citizen security” or “citizen safety” used in defense and military circles in Washington. It is crucial that we distinguish the broad notion of what undermines citizen security from the particular threats represented by drug trafficking and organized crime.
Illicit trafficking and transnational organized crime are described as intermestic threats because they are transnational in nature, but their effects are felt at a local level among populations and in the streets. In other words, they do hinder domestic citizen security. But a population’s safety is also affected by a wide range of uniquely domestic factors that surface in muggings, robberies, assaults, and even kidnappings.
It is thus dangerous to conceptually mix counternarcotics with citizen security. Because the borderline between counternarcotics and law enforcement is so thin, it is crucial to highlight that the armed forces cannot be involved in citizen security because the risks are too great. Soldiers are not trained to act in communities and with citizens. They are not trained either to arrest criminals or collect evidence for use in trials. Quite simply, they are trained to eliminate an adversary with overwhelming force -- and this is an extremely dangerous capability to have in the streets.