Terror's Latin American Profile

September 25, 2007

What—according to U.S. officials—is the face of terrorism in Latin America? What role is Latin America likely to play in a world-wide, U.S.-directed “war on terrorism”? The hunt for associates of Osama bin Laden was extended to Latin America almost immediately after the September 11 attacks. There were raids and arrests in Mexico, Brazil, Peru and a number of other countries; the most dramatic were in Paraguay, where masked policemen conducted dragnets in the markets of Ciudad del Este, a town in the triborder region where Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil meet. The region is notorious as a center of drug and contraband trade, and last year’s U.S. State Department Report on Terrorism cited the operation of “extremist religious groups” in the triborder area which reportedly posed “a terrorist concern.” The same area had earlier been the focus of Argentine investigations into a bombing of the Israeli embassy and another of the Jewish Mutual Aid Society, both in Buenos Aires. The triborder region is home to large and well-established Middle Eastern and Arabic communities; as elsewhere in Latin America, these communities bore the brunt of the terrorist hunt, which so far seems to have netted just a few solid suspects but many immigrants and travellers whose papers were not in order.

Although the focus of U.S. interest is now on groups and individuals tied to bin Laden’s al Qaeda or loosely allied Muslim groups which operate internationally, Latin America was, in fact, singled out in last year’s State Department report as the region of the world with “the largest increase in terrorist attacks from the previous year.” It achieved this ranking only because Colombia’s National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrillas stepped up their bombings of oil pipelines in that country, and the State Department classified these as “international terrorist attacks.” The ELN and three other Latin American guerrilla groups—Colombia’s FARC and Peru’s Shining Path and Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA)—were included on the State Department’s worldwide list of “Foreign Terrorist Organizations” issued in April of this year; Colombia’s AUC paramilitary group was appended to the list just days before September 11, bringing the worldwide total of groups listed to 28.[1] Cuba continued to be one of the seven governments designated by the State Department as “state sponsors of international terrorism”—the others being Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, North Korea and Sudan.

The significance of these “terrorist” labels for future U.S. actions in Latin America remains to be seen. President Bush’s declaration, in the wake of the attacks in the United States, that “either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists,” is one indication that the United States wishes to create a new kind of bipolar world, in which the epithet of choice for those not 100% “with the United States” will be “terrorist” instead of “Communist.” That could provide Washington with a handy pretext for intensifying campaigns against leftist guerrilla groups and Cuba, and for expanding a war on drugs in which the enemy has, since the 1980s, been branded as “narcoterrorists.”

But, as it has been used until now, the terrorist label may prove to be too all-encompassing: How long can an even moderately coherent campaign be mounted against a list of enemies that includes the FARC, which aims at overthrowing the current Colombian establishment, as well as the AUC, which aims to protect the Colombian status quo? Though the State Department list has some noteable oversights—no pro-U.S. government, however notorious its use of violence against civilian populations, is listed as a state sponsor of terrorism, for instance—the inclusion of the AUC is not completely an aberration: The current list also includes Kach and Kahane Chai, radical Jewish groups dedicated to restoring Israel to its “biblical borders,” as well as the radical Muslim groups Hamas and Hizballah, dedicated to Israel’s destruction.

Terrorism, understood as the purposeful use of violence against non-combatants, has long been used for such opposing goals. The anti-British and anti-Arab campaign waged by Menachem Begin’s Irgun toward the founding of Israel was as reliant on purposeful attacks on civilian targets as are those of certain pro-Palestinian groups today. Thus the State Department list is necessarily something of a grab bag; “terrorism,” unlike Communism, is not an ideology or a political system but a strategy or tactic which can be used toward a wide range of political ends.

It was not until the Reagan era, when the Cold War was drawing to a close and “the international Communist conspiracy” was growing threadbare as a means of winning U.S. public support for intervention abroad, that right-wing theorists like Michael Ledeen and Claire Sterling began to win official support for their view that “international terrorism” constituted a threat analogous to “international Communism”—that is that “terrorists” of different political stripes and religious creeds were working intimately together toward the downfall of the United States. During the Reagan years, the simple term “terrorism”—without other identifying national or ideological markers—became short-hand for any perceived threat of violence directed against U.S. interests.

But if public concern about Communism was waning, concern about the U.S. “drug problem” was at a peak, and so in the same era drug trafficking was rhetorically linked to this “terrorist” conspiracy as one of the key means by which “terrorists” were striving to destroy the United States and its international allies. And because the main drug of concern was cocaine, and cocaine is made exclusively in Latin America, Latin America was soon being described as a hotbed of “terrorism.”

In 1984, in a speech to the Organization of American States, Secretary of State George Shultz warned newly resurgent Latin American democracies that they would have to vigilantly “struggle” against “terrorism and drugs.” The same year Washington’s Ambassador to Colombia Lewis Tambs used the term “narcoguerrilla”—soon to mutate to “narcoterrorist”—to refer to an alleged alliance between Colombian insurgents and the Colombian groups that run the world cocaine trade. Though both groups earn income from various aspects of the drug trade, the two groups were (and are) actually sworn enemies.

From the point of view of members of Congress and drug control officials trying to win adminstration attention—and resources—for international drug control programs, “narcoterrorism” was a boon: It elevated drug control to the level of a key foreign policy issue. In 1986, President Reagan signed a secret directive which designated the international drug trade as a national security concern. This opened the way for U.S. military involvement in the drug war, and provided a ready-made mission for the Pentagon a few years later when the end of the Cold War effectively put an end to its old one.

Now the United States faces the real and concrete threat of terrorist attacks inside its own borders and, in response, the Bush administration has launched a new war. How will this war affect the U.S. stance toward various Latin American actors previously dubbed terrorist? The authors of this year’s State Department terrorism report could find no actions by the Peruvian groups worth noting since 1996, in the case of MRTA, and 1990 in the case of Shining Path, although both groups continue to have a small-scale presence in Peru, and Shining Path has mounted occasional attacks. But in the wake of the September 11 attacks, a year-old video surfaced in Peru in which Vladimiro Montesinos, the now jailed former intelligence chief, made vague references to U.S. concerns about the presence of bin Laden associates in Lima. Peru expert Coletta Youngers reports that in response, “the Peruvian government came out to assure everyone that there was no terrorist presence” in Peru, but she predicts that concerns about this, combined with allegations of increased Shining Path activity in some parts of the country, might hinder the work of the commission now investigating human rights abuses during the Fujimori government. And, she says, “we now run the risk of the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies coming in again and working with the new Peruvian intelligence agency that replaced the Fujimori-era SIN, and with police and military intelligence units. It is far from clear that the existing units have had human rights violators or Fujimoristas purged from their ranks.”

Colombia watchers differed widely in their assessment—as of early October—of the possible effects there of the newly declared international war on terrorism. Marc Chernick believes that, with official attention focused on global networks formed by Middle Eastern groups, Washington is far less likely to get involved in a major effort against the FARC in the name of either the drug war or counterinsurgency. “The heyday of Colombia as a policy focal point and the drug war as focal point is over,” he says, but adds that “this change in U.S. focus could generate new urgency on the part of some Colombian officials to push the peace process forward. At the same time, other Colombian leaders, long opposed to the peace process, will try to manipulate the new international situation to bolster greater counterterrorism policies and escalated war.”

Nazih Richani, by contrast, thinks the international situation could provide even more impetus for escalating the drug war and folding it into counterinsurgency efforts in the name of the war on terrorism. He cautions that since proposed anti-terrorist legislation would give the United States more latitude to work with “thugs” in the name of fighting terrorism, Washington could decide to ignore or remove the paramilitary AUC’s terrorist designation and instead work more openly with the group in the name of expediency.

Winifred Tate, a contributor to this issue, reports that even before September 11, conservative policy analysts in the United States had called for negotiations with paramilitary leaders, or the legalization of paramilitary groups. She cites the Rand Corporation’s recent report which concluded that the rondas campesinas (peasant security patrols) from Peru could be a useful model; according to the Rand authors,“in the Colombian situation, a network of properly supervised self-defense organizations could give the state a better handle on the activities of self-organized local groups.”[2] But Tate says that such suggestions “ignore the fact that Colombian paramilitary groups were legal for much of Colombian history, and government support simply facilitated the expansion of illegal groups involved in egregious human rights violations.”[3]

For the moment, U.S. State Department officials continue to publicly stress that the FARC, ELN and AUC are all “terrorist.” On October 15, the department released a statement condemning the AUC’s recent massacre of 24 civilians in the town of Buga. Francis Taylor, the State Department’s anti-terrorism coordinator, told the press after a meeting the same day at the Organization of American States that all three Colombian groups “will receive the same treatment as any other terrorist group in terms of our interest in pursuing them and putting an end to their terrorist activities.” Taylor did not rule out the use of military force in the “anti-terror” campaign in Latin America; he said the campaign would make use of the region’s intelligence and law enforcement resources and “where appropriate —as we are doing in Afghanistan—the use of military power.” But the question remains: What kind of campaign, military or otherwise, could be waged simultaneously against FARC and ELN insurgents and the AUC, which is both anti-insurgent and supported by some elements of the Colombian Armed Forces?

The case of Cuba is even more contradictory. Cuba expert Philip Brenner reports that after September 11 some members of Congress tried to have Cuba removed from the “terrorist” list, but this was stymied by the Cubans in Congress. According to Brenner, “There is a recognition that Cuba is something of an anomaly on the list, that the reasons it ended up on the list are very different from the kind of terrorism that blows up the World Trade Center.” Cuba analyst and former diplomat Wayne Smith noted in a commentary that “Justifications put forward by the State Department are unconvincing. We are told, for example, that Cuba harbors Basque separatists. Not really. There are a number of them living in Cuba, yes, but they are there as the result of an agreement between the Spanish and Cuban governments. Cuba is not harboring them and they are not engaged in terrorist activity of any kind.” Smith goes on to say that, “Cuba did immediately condemn the attacks on September 11 and express solidarity with the American people. Yet, Cuba is on the list while Afghanistan is not.”

In a September 25 open letter, Cuba activists and scholars also noted Fidel Castro’s denunciation of the attacks on the United States and his declared willingness to cooperate with Washington in combatting terrorism. “In this new world context dominated by the struggle against terrorism, Cuba clearly will not be an unquestioning ally, but it need not be an enemy,” the letter said. “Indeed, given the challenges we now face, it is not in the interests of the United States to treat it as an enemy.” But the trend, for the moment is in the opposite direction. Before September 11, the U.S. Congress had taken some steps toward easing the ban on travel to Cuba, but according to Brenner, “What’s for certain is that all movement toward relaxing the ban is now stopped for the foreseeable future.”

Even though Venezuela does not appear on the State Department terrorist list, Kate Doyle, also a contributor to this NACLA Report, points out that Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s relations with Libya’s Mohamar Quadaffi and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein have been a past source of friction with the United States. Doyle thinks that, “despite U.S. reliance on Venezuelan oil, Washington may move toward a more confrontational stance with Venezuela if the Bush administration adopts a ‘zero tolerance’ approach to what it perceives as support for terrorism.”

The Bush administration has already hinted that Nicaragua might be added to the list of nations that sponsor terrorism and face possible U.S. sanctions if Sandinista candidate Daniel Ortega wins the November 4 presidential election. In an October 4 statement, the State Department listed “grave reservations” about Sandinista party members supposed ties to Libya, Iraq, the FARC and Basque separatists.

Meanwhile, the “narcoterrorist” designation seems unlikely to disappear. In recent weeks, both British and U.S. officials have denounced al Qaeda and the Taliban for allegedly using profits from opium production to finance terrorist activities. New DEA administrator Asa Hutchinson told Congress in October that international drug trafficking groups are a “merger of international organized crime, drugs and terror.” Many “terrorist” groups undoubtedly do earn income from some kind of participation in the international drug market—as the man once said about robbing banks, that’s where the money is. Linking the two threats together in this way, however, does little to illuminate the complex realities of either phenomenon. For instance: CIA-supported groups working to topple the Soviet-backed government of Afghanistan in the 1980s—the same groups with which bin Laden was originally allied—were heavily involved in opium production. By contrast, the UN earlier this year praised the Taliban for eradicating the opium-poppy crop in areas under Taliban control—though the group now threatens to permit new production in response to the U.S. attacks on their territory. What the rhetorical terror-drug linkage does do is ensure that U.S. drug warriors will continue to have a mission in a world where “terror” is now seen as the primary U.S. target. And the link helps prop up a simplistic worldview in which it’s not necessary to look at U.S. society or policies to find the root causes of the problems that afflict the United States, but merely to brand them as evils spread by those who aren’t unquestioningly “with the United States.”

JoAnn Kawell is the editor of NACLA Report on the Americas.

1. A revised State Department list, released October 5, 2001, recertified 26 of 28 groups previously on the list, combined two groups, Kahane Chai and Kach, into one, and added the AUC for the first time.
2. Angel Rabasa and Peter Chalk, Colombian Labyrinth: The Synergy of Drugs and Insurgency and Its Implications for Regional Stability (Santa Monica: Rand Corporation, 2001), p. 60.
3. Washington Office on Latin America, Losing Ground: Human Rights Defenders Under Attack, (Washington, D.C., 1997).

Tags: US foreign policy, war on terror, guerrillas, ideology, militarization

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