Collaboration and learning in Latin America’s fight against transnational organized crime and terrorism

As I saw in four days at a region-wide discussion, Latin American militaries are already collaborating on the triple threats of narcotics trafficking, terrorism and organized crime. Here are nine areas for further cooperation.


From September 19 to 24, I had the opportunity to participate in a working meeting of the 32nd Conference of the American Armies (CAA) in Bogotá, Colombia. The event brought together 17 different delegations of member and observer nations from across the hemisphere and beyond to focus on the new defense challenges facing the Americas in the 21st century.

The timing of the meeting was striking. The same week, less than 180 miles south of us, in San Vicente del Caguán, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarios de Colombia (FARC) were holding their own meeting, contemplating their ratification of the peace accords signed August 24 with the Colombian government.

Back in Bogotá, the three security topics to focus on in the session were chosen by the assembled participants by a prioritizing and voting process from among 17 candidate topics identified beforehand by the CAA member delegations: narcotics trafficking, terrorism, and transnational organized crime.

For those who haven’t worked directly with Latin American military officers it was impressive. Event participants—almost all of them representatives of the armed forces —demonstrated a nuanced understanding of the multidimensional nature and socioeconomic roots of the challenges. Participants were careful to emphasize the differences in national situations and legal frameworks that govern how each of the region’s militaries could, and should, support efforts against these challenges. In every case, participants highlighted that effectively addressing the triple threats of narcotics trafficking, terrorism and organized crime requires whole-of-government efforts and international coordination. And they were clear in each case: the appropriate role of the military in such matters is to operate in support of civilian authorities.

For the discussants at the conference, narcotics trafficking is a not only a global threat but that both feeds off and damages the affected societies, both exporters and consumers, by fostering violence and crime, and by eroding the strength of institutions through corruption and illegality, and—by extension—undermining the capacity of the state to serve the people and promote development. The participants further recognized narcotrafficking as a public health threat, and participants called attention not only to the problem of consumption in major markets such as the United States and Europe, but also to the growing problems of consumption in countries that before had principally served as transit points.

The discussion of terrorism at the event highlighted the diversity of challenges faced by states in the region, including those damaged by terrorism wrought by ideologically motivated groups such as the FARC, National Liberation Army (ELN) and Shining Path, as well as from groups motivated principally by profit, such as Mara Salvatrucha—recognized as a terrorist organization by the Salvadoran government—whose actions include the burning of buses, detonation of bombs, and the commission of other acts to intimidate and extort local businesses.

Participants also discussed the challenge of radical Islamist terrorism in the region. They acknowledged the limited number of physical attacks that have occurred in Latin America (the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires in 1992 and the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires in 1994) and at least one potentially thwarted series of attacks (with the arrest of Mohammad Amadar in Peru in October 2014 in a suburb of Lima, Peru, in what was believed to be a plot to use bombs against Jewish targets in that nation). Yet they also recognized the potential threat from the terrorist networks’ use of illicit networks, such as money laundering and the transport of people and contraband goods in the region.

In the case of transnational crime, participants recognized that the role of military varies according to the functions and responsibilities assigned to the military and other police or guard functions. Yet across countries there were areas consistent with law. Among those were frontier security, working against drug production and transformation facilities, support to the police in operations against criminal groups, intelligence collection, and asserting and guaranteeing territorial control and protection of the general population.

Despite important differences in national perspectives, all agreed that expanding cooperation among militaries, through personnel exchanges and the sharing of information and experiences, in the fight against narcotics trafficking, terrorism, and transnational organized crime is crucial. How to do so was identified as an important topic of discussion for future events. Insofar as my own work on organized crime touches on this topic, I offer some of my own recommendations for the consideration of both the CAA, and other interested organizations and policymakers in the region.

What can be done?

Through my work, I have identified nine areas in which the governments of the region may learn from each other’s innovations, best practices and errors in the fight against transnational organized crime and terrorism, while adapting these novel approaches to individual country and military legal frameworks and circumstances.

Whole-of-government-solutions: Virtually all of the governments of the region have cabinet-level processes and national security strategy documents that incorporate inputs from a broad range of appropriate ministries, as well from cabinet-level planning processes and internal and international arrangements for addressing challenges such as organized crime and terrorism. What is often lacking is a broader strategic concept to understand and address these challenges in systemic terms, recognizing the interdependence between the groups and involved in these activities. Too often, the lines of action and balance of effort between different government organizations simply reflect what those organizations do, rather than how their capabilities can best be leveraged across their organizations and functions to attack the problem.

Interdiction and control: At least seven countries in the region have developed, or are developing legal frameworks for detection and interception capabilities to contest unauthorized use of their airspace by narcotics traffickers and other criminal actors. Many are also acquiring new oceangoing and riverine naval assets to control their coasts and inland waterways, as well as using scanners and other technical mechanisms to better control their ports.

These new capabilities provide ample opportunities for the countries involved to share insights and best practices from such activities, as well as intelligence on threats, where appropriate. In addition, armed forces and other government authorities are coordinating activities to better control their common frontiers, including binational patrols such as Maya-Chorti between Honduras and Guatemala, Lenca-Sumpul between Honduras and El Salvador, and the binational activities Morazán-Sandino between Honduras and Nicaragua in the framework of the Conference of Central American Armed Forces. Numerous nations in the region conduct regular coordination meetings on the management of their frontiers “Combifrons,” that benefit the fight against organized crime and terrorism.

There are arguably numerous opportunities to expand such collaboration to other states as well.

High value asset targeting: The majority of countries in the region target the leaderships of criminal and terrorist organizations, and increasingly, gangs such as Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18, often with a level of success that is not fully recognized. These include Mexico’s takedown of El Chapo Guzman (multiple times), La Tuta Gomez, Miguel Treviño and Héctor Beltrán Leyva, the arrests of the leadership of smuggling organizations such as the Cachiros and Valle Valles in Honduras, the Mendoza, Lorenzana, Leon and Lopez Ortiz families in Guatemala, and leaders of the Shining Path terrorist organization in Peru, including comrades Artemio, Hector, Alipio, Gabriel, and William (noms de guerre ).

Multinational and interagency intelligence collaboration is important in such efforts. Yet more can be done to anticipate the secondary effects  of such actions on the organizations involved (such as the generation of violent confrontation between competing factions of the group, or rival groups), and their relationships with other groups to stay one step ahead of the evolving criminal dynamic and associated violence.

Use of armed forces to support police: With exceptions generally concentrated in the Southern Cone, most countries in the region use their armed forces to some degree in support of law enforcement operations. In some cases, such as the Zeus command and the special reaction force (FERES) in El Salvador, such collaboration is institutionalized. In rare cases, such as the Military Police for Public Order (PMOP) in Honduras, special military units have arrest and other police powers under the national legal framework. In virtually every case that the military is involved in domestic law-enforcement activities, it is concerned about the vulnerability of its personnel to current or future prosecution in civilian courts, based on a lack of clarity or inadequate protections for the armed forces within the legal framework in which they are operating.

Whole-of-government-intelligence: In virtually every country in the region, combatting terrorism and organized crime involves the coordination of intelligence from organizations in the military, police, the attorney general’s office, financial intelligence units, and national intelligence agencies.

Colombia has seven organizations with intelligence functions, including separate entities in the Army, Navy, and Air Force, the police, the national intelligence directorate (DNI), the financial intelligence unit (UIAF), and an intelligence coordination organization in the general staff of the armed forces. In Mexico, each of the separate military services, as well as a special organization within the Mexican Attorney General’s office (PGR) for analyzing intelligence on organized crime, CENAPI, as well as the national intelligence organization, CISEN. Ecuador has a national intelligence secretariat that oversees a national intelligence system that draws upon separate intelligence organizations in the armed forces and police, as well as an independent financial intelligence unit. Honduras has an intelligence capability within its interagency task force FUSINA, as well as intelligence organizations within the armed forces, police, and attorney general’s office that it draws upon.

Information sharing and collaboration between these organizations is complicated not only by bureaucratic divisions, but by concerns within some organizations of corruption in the other.  While part of the solution to such coordination challenges is the expanded confidence accompanying reduced corruption, the sharing of experiences between nations regarding coordination  between organizations to produce fused, actionable intelligence is a fruitful area to be explored.

Police and judicial system reform: Throughout the region, nations are combatting corruption in police and judicial organs with the application of screening procedures, confidence tests, and purges. Honduras has dismissed more than 300 senior police officers as part of efforts to purge its ranks of corruption.

Nonetheless, progress in such cases is often impeded by police laws often limiting the dismissal of an officer for failing a confidence test, and the temptation to merely reassign the official in question. Large scale dismissals also create the risk of actually expanding crime by putting corrupt personnel knowledgeable of police practices on the street, while leaving a temporary manpower gap in the police forces themselves. Police forces in the region can share best practices regarding how to best manage this transition.

Attacking group finances: The financial resources of criminal and terrorist groups are arguably a key center of gravity, instrumental for the recruitment of personnel, the construction of criminal organizations, the acquisition of arms, the payment of bribes, and the production, transformation and transportation of narcotics, among other activities. The majority of states in the region are building or strengthening financial intelligence capabilities. Some organizations are independent,  such as the Financial Intelligence Units in Ecuador and Panama, while others are embedded in the police, attorney general’s office, anti-narcotics agency (as in the Dominican Republic), in the finance or economics ministries (as in Colombia), or split up among a range of capabilities.   The strength of national laws empowering the activities of such organizations, and their level of coordination with other governments and financial institutions varies greatly, but a comparative examination of what works best when, and why, would be helpful for all nations going after this critical soft underbelly of criminal activities.

Control and reform of penitentiary systems: Particularly in the states of the Northern Triangle, the benefit of incarcerating the leadership of criminal groups and their members is subverted by the ability of these leaders to consolidate control over group members inside prison walls, and to continue to manage group activities through coordination with those on the outside. The nations of the region have attempted, with varying degrees of success, to break this cycle by expanding prison facilities and/or improving control mechanisms. El Salvador, arguably the nation in the region most severely affected by criminal gang violence, has achieved significant progress through a combination of extraordinary measures, including transferring both prisoners and personnel between facilities, cutting off prisoner access to visitors, more effectively blocking cellphone coverage of prison areas, and re-introducing the military into prisons to work side-by-side with police and penitentiary officials.

International coordination: Both binational and multinational collaboration has helped government efforts against terrorist and criminal groups in the region. Through financial and other forms of intelligence, U.S. support has been instrumental in the detention of terrorist and criminal group leaders throughout the region, while the willingness of partners such as Honduras and Colombia to extradite leaders for crimes with jurisdiction in the U.S. has helped to undercut criminal leaders’ ability to use local ties to avoid prison.

Less noticed, but equally important, are the multilateral venues within the Inter American system such as the Conference of Central American Armies (CFAC), the Conference of American Armies, and the Central American Integration System (SICA). These forums for collaboration have facilitated cooperation in the fight against transnational organized crime and terrorism. CFAC, for example, has been instrumental in the creation of regional training centers such as the center for training against transnational organized crime (CRAACT) in El Salvador, trimestral meetings of the intelligence chiefs of the region’s armed forces, and similarly regular meetings of brigade commanders on either side of each other’s shared frontiers to interchange information and plan future coordinated activities.

Final Reflections

My participation the Conference of American Armies event in Bogotá this week made it clear to me that the CAA and other collaborative events within the Inter American system are useful and important vehicles for facilitating the exchange of information and the construction of relationships of confidence among militaries.

It is easy for those with experience with Latin America and the Caribbean to become cynical regarding the region’s capacity for positive change, no matter how close the region is to our hearts. While I also occasionally fall in this category, I was moved at the end of the conference by a small, but instructive, occurrence.

During the closing ceremony, a technical glitch caused the playing of the Colombian national anthem to stop in mid-stream. Not more than three seconds of silence passed before the Colombian officers present, joined together to a person, to sing the anthem to its completion. No one flinched. It just happened.

I was reminded that the military institutions of the Americas, whatever their imperfections, not only bring key capabilities to their governments, but are filled with people who believe in the defense and betterment of their homelands. As such, they have an important role, among others, in the shared fight among the scourges of narcotics trafficking, transnational organized crime and terrorism in the region—challenges that all of us in the region face, and most effectively face together.


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