U.S. Faces Threats to Peace in Latin America, Caribbean

By Rudi Williams

Despite the many pressing demands on the nation and its resources, the United States must pay more attention to traditional and emerging threats in the Latin American and Caribbean region of the world, Army Gen. James T. Hill said in March 24 testimony before the House Armed Services Committee.

For example, he said, Colombia’s considerable progress in the battle against narcoterrorism is offset by negative developments elsewhere in the region, particularly in Haiti, Bolivia and Venezuela.

"These developments represent an increasing threat to U.S. interests," said Hill, commander of the U.S. Southern Command, with headquarters in Miami.

SOUTHCOM includes the landmass of Latin America south of Mexico; the waters adjacent to Central and South America; the Caribbean Sea, its 12 island nations and European territories; the Gulf of Mexico; and a portion of the Atlantic Ocean. It encompasses 32 countries – 19 in Central and South America and 12 in the Caribbean – and covers about 15.6 million square miles.

Hill said the United States faces two primary types of threats in the region: traditional and emerging threats. On the traditional front are threats from narcoterrorists and their ilk, a growing threat to law and order in partner nations from urban gangs and other illegal armed groups, Hill said, generally tied to the narcotics trade. Islamic radical groups pose a lesser, but sophisticated threat, he added.

"These traditional threats are now complemented by an emerging threat best described as radical populism, in which the democratic process is undermined to decrease rather than protect individual rights," the general said. "Some leaders in the region are tapping into deep-seated frustrations of the failure of democratic reforms to deliver expected goods and services."

By tapping into these frustrations, coupled with frustrations caused by social and economic inequality, the leaders are able to reinforce their radical positions by inflaming anti-U.S. sentiment, the general said. Others are seeking to undermine U.S. interests in the region by supporting these movements, he noted.

The narcoterrorists in Colombia remain the largest and most well-known threat in the region, he said. The three narcoterrorist groups, he noted, never have paid a price for their illicit activities. They are the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC; the National Liberation Army, or ELN; and the United Self-Defense Forces, or AUC.

"Most observers now understand that these groups are narcoterrorists rather than romantic guerrillas crusading for the downtrodden," Hill said. "While a few might retain some of their founding ideology, by and large these groups consist of terrorists and criminals who operate outside the rule of law in pursuit of illicit profits rather than political revolution."

The largest threat comes from FARC, the largest group with 13,000 to 15,000 members, which still holds three Americans hostage. Hill said ELN, a smaller organization with an estimated 3,500 to 4,000 members, is declining in importance.

"There has been some progress in encouraging the ELN to demobilize via peace talks, although those who refuse may merge with the FARC," the general said.

AUC still is a threat and still is heavily involved in narcotics trafficking, but the organization is in peace negotiations with the Colombian government, Hill noted.

"Some 10,000 to 12,000 members of the illegal self-defense groups are estimated to be involved in the peace process, though another 2,000 to 4,000 remain outside the process," Hill said.

An increasingly dangerous emerging threat is that the narcoterrorist influence is bleeding over into the growingly sophisticated criminal gangs, Hall said. While not all gangs are fueled by illicit narcotics, most bolster their criminality by drawing substantial support from the drug trade, he noted.

Hill said the World Health Organization describes Latin America as the world’s most violent region, based on the numbers of homicides per capita, surpassing even war-torn Africa.

"Violent crime causes capital flight from within the country and stifles investment from outside the country," he pointed out. "It literally takes money out of the pockets of those who need it most and hurts those who have the least.

"Beyond narcoterrorist and gang violence, branches of Middle Eastern terrorist organizations conduct support activities in the Southern Command area of responsibility," Hill told the lawmakers. "Islamic radical group supporters extending from the Caribbean basin to the tri-border area of Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil conduct fund-raising activities.

The general said supporters generate illicit funds through money laundering, drug trafficking, arms deals, human smuggling, piracy and document forgery. "They funnel tens of millions of dollars every year back to their parent organizations in the Middle East, thus extending the global support structure of international terrorism to this hemisphere," he said. "Islamic radical groups, narcoterrorists in Colombia and urban gangs across Latin America all practice many of the same illicit business methods."

Radical populism is another emerging concern in the region, Hill noted. "Populism in and of itself is not a threat," he emphasized. "The threat emerges when it becomes radicalized by a leader who increasingly uses his position and support from a segment of the population to infringe gradually upon the rights of all citizens. This trend degrades democracy and promises to concentrate power in the hands of a few rather than guaranteeing the individual rights of the many.

"Anti-American sentiment also troubles our partner nations as well, as elected leaders must take into account the sometime very vocal views of their constituents," Hill said.

The general noted that Colombia is where the most is at stake, because the United States made an enormous investment in the Colombia government more than three years ago.

"That investment is beginning to pay dividends," he continued. "Under President (Alvaro) Uribe, the government of Colombia, with robust popular support, is making impressive progress in defeating the narcoterrorists and rejoining the ranks of peaceful, safe and secure states."