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Handbook 10-51
July 2010

Chapter 7



Time to Improve: U.S. Defense Structure for the Western Hemisphere   Dr. Craig A. Deare

Islamic Terrorist Activities in Latin America: Why the Region and the US Should be Concerned   Renee Novakoff

War Without Borders: The Ecuador-Colombia Crisis of 2008 and Inter-American Security   Dr. Gabriel Marcella

Time to Improve: U.S. Defense Structure for the Western Hemisphere

Dr. Craig A. Deare

Reprinted with permission from the 2nd Quarter 2009 issue of Joint Force Quarterly.

As the Nation adjusts to the reality of the Obama administration, the time is ripe for a fundamental improvement in the Pentagon's relationship with its counterparts in the Western Hemisphere. It should be acknowledged that U.S. foreign policy in general, and defense policy in particular, is not routinely engaged in matters of importance to the nations of the hemisphere. Given the nature of a globalized world, and the fact that the United States is no longer the only security option available to the region's actors, American policymakers must work to remain relevant and engaged with those open to being our partners.

This article runs the risk of being a bit "inside baseball regarding U.S. defense policy toward the region as it seeks to explain the primary structural shortcomings associated with both the formulation and execution of policy. It does not recommend specific policies for particular countries or concerns; rather, it is intended to address matters of structure and process. There are a number of reasons why the quality and level of Department of Defense (DOD) engagement with the nations of this hemisphere have been suboptimal. Among these, the current organizational structure within the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) and the Unified Command Plan (UCP) for this hemisphere is the result (not the cause) of key factors responsible for our traditional inattention. At the end of the day, however, key structural changes within OSD and in the current UCP are required to significantly improve the quality of DOD policy formulation and security cooperation with the partner nations of the Western Hemisphere. This is not to suggest that structural changes alone are necessary; clearly, sound policy requires informed analysis and wise decision making. As Senator Henry "Scoop Jackson stated, "Good national security policy requires both good policymakers and good policy machinery.1 Indeed, one cannot be divorced from the other, but the focus here is on the machinery.

It is important to understand the context in which this effect has occurred to make the decisions necessary to correct the structural shortcomings. For reasons that will be addressed briefly, the geopolitical realities at play in this part of the world are serious and troublesome. They will not disappear in the short term, but they will require the dedication of time and attention by senior defense decision makers sooner rather than later.

A Current Snapshot of Defense Concerns

Prior to delving into DOD structural shortcomings, we must address why it is more important than ever to have a more effective configuration of assets to engage the region. Space limitations preclude addressing all 35 countries of the hemisphere, but make no mistake-the security issues at play in this part of the world represent real and present dangers, and DOD has an important role to play. This is particularly true given the department's recent policy of elevating stability operations to the same priority level as those related to combat, and the reality that the region presents a target-rich environment for the entire range of tasks involved in those operations.

The notion of threats, challenges, and other concerns represents the consensus language that emerged from the Conference on Hemispheric Security in Mexico City in October 2003. The consensus was required to bridge the wide gaps in regional views among countries as diverse as the United States, Bolivia, and Saint Kitts and Nevis. Classical military threats that characterized the bipolar world do not represent the perceived threats dominating the security thinkers of most countries in the Western Hemisphere. As U.S. security elites think about the region, they must recognize that nontraditional, transnational, and other than state-on-state aggression is the most pressing danger their counterparts there see.

Transnational Threats

Trafficking of Drugs, Small Arms/ Weapons, and Contraband

Although these items are linked, the menace of drug smuggling is perhaps the most pernicious and troubling. The effects of the transshipments of drugs, and increasingly their consumption in the countries of production and the transit zone, are wreaking havoc throughout the hemisphere. The monies derived from these illicit activities are funding the acquisition of greater firepower than is available to local and national police forces, requiring the militaries of many countries to play a direct role. These trafficking routes are also available to terrorist organizations.


Most U.S. policymakers equate terrorism with al Qaeda and its derivatives, but the region has its own homegrown varieties. The best known are the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) in Colombia and Sendero Luminoso in Peru. Although Colombia's President Álvaro Uribe has led a successful effort to combat the FARC, that endeavor is not yet concluded. For its part, Sendero Luminoso, believed to have been defeated and eradicated in the 1990s, is making a comeback. And while Islamic radical terrorist cells are not known to be operational in the region (yet), there are groups present within the hemisphere, some in urban areas. It is widely believed that Islamic groups raise funds legally and illegally to finance operations around the world. The Venezuela-Iran linkage is particularly troublesome. As well, there are small groups of insurgents in Mexico and other countries that merit close monitoring.

Organized Crime

Listed as a separate entity from the trafficking trio, this term refers to the large number of active criminal networks and their role in undermining societies and governments. In the majority of countries in the hemisphere, organized criminal networks play a debilitating role over the viability of the state. Included in this category are the Maras, or gangs, that operate in a transnational fashion as well, generating greater levels of violence and insecurity throughout Central America, Mexico, and beyond.

Priority Countries


Although many things are going right in this key neighbor's territory, its security situation is bad and getting worse. There are seven major narcotics trafficking cartels operating throughout the country, generating violence and challenging the very authority of the state. According to the private intelligence agency STRATFOR (Strategic Forecasting, Incorporated), "the 2008 death toll related to drug trafficking reached 4,325 on November 3, far exceeding the total of nearly 2,500 for all of 2007.2 President Felipe Calderón has given the mission to the armed forces, due to the combination of factors related to Mexican law enforcement (corruption, ineffectiveness, and no national police force). The watered down Mérida Initiative represents a tepid attempt to address this serious situation; much bolder thinking and far more resources will be required.


Despite protestations to the contrary and words about democracy, this country is a de facto military dictatorship. Hugo Chavez has essentially dismantled any semblance of democratic institutions, and threatens the military balance of South America with planned acquisitions of 4.5 generation aircraft, submarines, tanks, and antiaircraft capabilities. His active pursuit of relationships with Russia, China, Iran, Cuba, Belarus, and North Korea is anything but benign. Matters will get considerably worse before they improve.


The country of the future is arriving. President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has taken on the role of regional leader, moving beyond the potential to the real. Beyond mere economic and political influence, defense minister Nelson Jobim has bold and grand designs for a much more robust and energetic military role, in terms of both new capabilities and leadership. Jobim has created the Consejo de Defensa Sudamericano (South American Defense Council), a regional defense entity that excludes the United States. A new defense strategy is in the offing, seeking strategic relationships with France, Russia, and other extra-regional actors. The United States needs to consider its national security interests as it ponders whether to deepen or reduce its defense relationship with this key player.


Internal political strife is running high, and although the likelihood of the country splitting in two is not great, it is nonetheless a possibility that bears monitoring. The fact that Hugo Chavez has promised to intervene militarily in the event of civil infighting presents a challenge to the countries of the region. How will DOD react to such an eventuality?


The question of what happens when the Castro brothers disappear from the scene remains open. This land, the size of Pennsylvania and with 11 million people, is at what the National Security Strategy would describe as a "strategic crossroads. DOD's stability operations mission has serious implications when matters begin to unravel. Conversely, should the Obama administration decide to engage the government of Cuba, and understanding the preeminent role of the Cuban armed forces, the policy implications for DOD could be significant.


This country comes closest to acting as an ally in the region. The Ministry of Defense and the armed forces have transformed significantly during the tenure of President Uribe, although many observers will continue to emphasize the human rights shortcomings of the government far more than those of the insurgents. To its misfortune, Colombia is located in a less than desirable neighborhood, bordered to the east by Venezuela and to the south by Ecuador. How will DOD engage the Colombian military in the future?

The above limited sample does not fully capture the wide range of challenges that confront the region; there are myriad other vital issues meriting attention. It does underscore that there are many matters of substance calling for improving the structure to ensure they are properly served.

Factors Contributing to Inattention

A number of specific factors are responsible-in large part-for the relatively consistent (save periodic crises) lack of DOD attention in matters related to the Western Hemisphere.

A Dangerous World

National security challenges in East Asia, the Middle East, Central Asia, and the Horn of Africa in by the Colombia-Ecuador-Venezuela "crisis in March 2008. Despite the unlikely event of state-on-state violence, the number of both transnational and internal threats and challenges related to violence and crime warrants increasing attention.

It's the Economy

The principal U.S. interest in this hemisphere has long been, in general terms, economic. Washington's foreign policy has emphasized democracy, market economics, and stability, dating from the Monroe Doctrine in the 19th century and the Roosevelt Corollary in the early 20th century. However, more recently it has been formed in response to crises. Examples beyond Colombia where U.S. administrations paid significant attention to the security situation include Haiti (1994/2004), Panama (1990), Central America in general (Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala in particular in the 1980s), Grenada (1983), and the Dominican Republic (1965). The recent level of U.S. commitment to Bogota is an exception to this general trend, and was due initially more to an effective Colombian diplomatic campaign with the Department of State and Congress than to a DOD-led effort.

Developmental Challenges

The primary challenges confronting the majority of nations of the hemisphere are developmental in nature. The institutional frailty of general, as well as Pakistan, North Korea, Iran, China, Russia, and other locales demand the attention of the Secretary of Defense on an almost daily basis. Very infrequently do issues in this hemisphere call for his immediate attention, and in many important ways, this is a very good thing.

A (Relatively) Peaceful Region

The risks represented by national security challenges in this hemisphere seem to pale in comparison with those elsewhere. Canada is a strong and dependable ally; Mexico is an increasingly capable partner; our "third border, the Caribbean, is relatively stable (though currently facing important internal concerns). The average level of defense spending (approximately 1.5 percent) of the nations of this hemisphere is the lowest in the world, which is fortunate in broad terms. This reflects the reality that the likelihood of state-on-state conflict is low though not impossible, particularly if we are inattentive, as evidenced many of the democracies, the myriad challenges confronting the societies (from poor educational systems to struggling health care delivery), the uneven character of the economic programs, and the predicament of the justice systems and the rule of law are the fundamental issues that confront the region. These challenges, and the regional governments' deficiencies in addressing them, have led to the aforementioned internal-and increasingly transnational-security threats. Organized crime, gang violence, and trafficking of drugs, persons, and small arms are the effect. These issues are not resolved with military means, although the armed forces can and do play an important role in dealing with the associated security effects of the developmental problems. In fact, because of the institutional weaknesses of many governments, the military is all too often called on to perform missions not traditionally within the scope of the armed forces.


Yet another complicating factor is heterogeneity. Non specialists tend to think of the hemisphere-to the extent they think of it at all-as Latin America, or perhaps Latin America and the Caribbean. And it is true that both of those "areas share a number of culturally similar characteristics. But the fact is that there are 19 different "Latin American countries, and 13 different "Caribbean countries, as well as 14 U.S. and European territories and dependencies. This reality makes the notion of crafting a "defense policy for Latin America or a "defense policy for the Caribbean exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, in practical terms.

Divergent Conceptions of Security and Defense

A subset of the great heterogeneity is that each country has a different understanding of the role of the armed forces in its security and defense equation. As mentioned previously, some armed forces are required by constitution to be involved in the internal security matters of the state (for example, Guatemala), while others have been limited to reacting exclusively to external military threats of state actors, greatly reducing their roles (for example, Argentina). Because of these distinctions, the interaction between DOD and the militaries of other countries may be quite different, as in Chile, Argentina, Colombia, and Mexico. This reality exacerbates the general lack of understanding of the region, making the task of crafting coherent and nuanced policy more difficult.

Having reviewed the reasons for the relative neglect by DOD, the hemisphere is distinct in one critical variable: it is our hemisphere in the sense that this is where we live. It is worth repeating-those who pay attention to the region know this intuitively-that this hemisphere in general, and Latin America in particular, is thus the area of the world that most directly affects our citizens' daily lives.

To highlight just one of many examples of the region's impact, U.S. trade with countries in this hemisphere in 2007 was 29.16 percent of the Nation's total, essentially double that with the European Union (15.22 percent), and more than triple that with China (9.77 percent).3 The importance of stable economic markets, and the role of security and defense toward achieving that stability, is self-evident. As Senator John McCain said to an audience of broadcasters during his Presidential campaign, "To all of the people and governments of our shared hemisphere: No portion of this earth is more important to the United States. My administration will work relentlessly to build a future with liberty and justice for ALL.4 Although President Obama may not have shared the same view, he now needs to get up to speed quickly.

Addressing the Challenges

These realities did not come about overnight; they are the cumulative effect of many years of inattention and/or disinterest by U.S. administrations of both parties as well as the inexperience, inconsistency, and incompetence of many regional governments. Clearly, the resolution will also take considerable time and will depend on both U.S. and regional efforts. A major challenge regional governments must overcome is a history of authoritarian and military rule, a reality not shared by the United States. Many countries continue to work their way through relatively fresh civil-military wounds, with some efforts actually exacerbating rather than healing those wounds. That said, there are two comparatively simple structural changes that DOD can adopt to fundamentally improve the nature of the defense relationship between the United States and the countries of the region.

First, DOD should create the office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (ASD) for Western Hemisphere Affairs (WHA). In essence, this calls for exchanging the configuration of one ASD office with a Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense (DASD) office within the same directorate.

This upgrade of the DASD WHA to ASD WHA employs similar logic to that used to create the office of the ASD for Asian Affairs. Prior to the latest OSD reorganization in 2006, Asian affairs were the domain of the DASD for Asia-Pacific Affairs, situated within the ASD for International Security Affairs (ISA) (as were the DASDs for Inter-American Affairs, African Affairs, and Near East-South Asian Affairs). Given the scale of the region and the influence of Asian affairs in general- the cases of China, North Korea, Japan, South Korea, and India, among others-it made good sense to carve out the Asian affairs portfolio and create a separate ASD office. Robert Kaplan argues that a confluence of the experience of three key individuals-Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, and Richard Myers-was a key factor in this shift.5 For reasons listed previously, a similar organizational rearrangement is called for in the Western Hemisphere.

A separate but also key issue of this "elevation is that it more appropriately balances the relationship between the policy-makers position and that of the combatant command commanders. Deputy Assistant Secretaries of Defense are many levels removed from the Secretary of Defense, having to route their recommendations through multiple levels of bureaucrats, most of whom know little and care even less about the region.6 In hierarchical terms, a DASD is roughly equivalent to a major general, while geographic combatant are among the most powerful four-star general/flag officers in the system. Over the years, combatant commands from this hemisphere have routinely bypassed the DASD, consulting directly with the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy or the Secretary, effectively relegating the DASD to a senior staff officer within the bureaucracy. On the other hand, Assistant Secretaries of Defense are four-star equivalents, requiring confirmation by the Senate (DASDs do not require confirmation). An individual sufficiently senior and experienced to receive Senate confirmation as the ASD WHA, would be able to establish and maintain clear lines of policy supremacy vis-àvis the combatant commander.

As the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs is the principal military advisor to the Secretary and the President, a combatant commander should be the principal military advisor for issues in the Western Hemisphere to the OSD leadership. An ASD WHA should be the individual responsible for providing advice on defense issues and defense policy-a more strategic and broader perspective than purely operational military matters, which are the purview of combatant commanders. As when the Chairman accompanies the Secretary to Capitol Hill, the combatant commander should accompany the Assistant Secretary, clearly reinforcing the hierarchy of the civilian policymaker for the region over the subordinate military operational commander.

On another note, from a reciprocity and protocol perspective, one should not underestimate the impact of the level of the official charged with defense policy for the hemisphere. Most countries were offended when they were informed of (but never consulted about) the moving of the office responsible for regional policy development from the ASD ISA to the newly created ASD for Homeland Defense (HD). Many senior regional officials questioned whether the United States considered their countries as subordinate to the defense of the American homeland, and why regions such as Africa and the Middle East were still within ISA, while Inter-American Affairs migrated to a newly created office responsible for internal defense of the United States. Upgrading the office responsible for regional policy formulation would go a long way toward reassuring the region that DOD assesses it as important. Moreover, this bureaucratic upgrade would enable the Assistant Secretary to interact on par with the other ASDs within the policy office.

An ancillary advantage of the ASD WHA upgrade is the associated level of congressional (specifically Senate) involvement in Western Hemisphere matters. Senate Armed Services confirmation hearings will require much greater attention than currently exists. Aside from U.S. Southern Command (USSOUTHCOM) annual testimony, scant attention is paid to the region for reasons already listed. It is also safe to assume that a nominee for ASD WHA would have to be a senior individual with a demonstrated record of experience related to the region. No longer would the office responsible for DOD policy in the area be filled by relatively junior political appointees with limited regional defense experience or expertise.7

The "exchange of an ASD WHA for the ASD HD is warranted. The creation of the ASD HD office in the post-9/11 environment was an effort to adjust to serious internal threats to U.S. security. The reality, however, was that in broad terms, there was little substantive change in DOD policy. Defense Support to Civil Authorities (or Military Support to Civil Authorities, as it was known previously) is longstanding in U.S. military tradition. DOD's relationship with the Department of Homeland Security, as well as other relevant actors within the interagency community, does not require this level of organizational interface, particularly in terms of policy. DOD's role remains what it has long been: to respond to requests from other lead agencies when military capabilities are required to support domestic law enforcement or other agencies. The important civilian policy matters related to Homeland Defense will continue to be performed, but under ASD WHA oversight. Nonetheless, DOD's primary focus remains external threats and challenges.

This new configuration would be as follows:

  • ASD WHA. This official now receives the same level of support as his counterparts. He is assigned two military assistants (colonel/captain), a confidential assistant, an executive assistant, and so forth. The ASD would move about the Pentagon, as well as the interagency community and abroad, with much greater prestige, credibility, and authority. The ASD would be supported by a principal deputy and three DASDs.
  • Principal DASD WHA. Among the perks of being an ASD is the advantage of having a deputy to assist in running the office, typically focusing on the Pentagon, leaving the ASD to work externally. In many cases, the Principal DASD is a career member of the Senior Executive Service (SES), not a political appointee. Ideally, this position would be filled with a career civil servant with 20 years or more of defense experience with Latin American and/or Caribbean issues.
  • DASD for North American and Caribbean Affairs. This DASD would have responsibility for two of the most important U.S. partners in the world: Canada and Mexico. Despite attempts to shoehorn issues into the Security Prosperity Partnership, the fact is that Canada and Mexico have different security and defense challenges, and require distinct policy management. The Caribbean, for its part, has perhaps the least heterogeneous binding among the sub-regions, with 15 Caribbean Community members of British Commonwealth and Anglophone influence. Nonetheless, the cases of Cuba, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic are major exceptions to this commonality. Moreover, the countries of Central America cannot be arbitrarily separated from Mexico, as in the artificial separation resulting from a U.S. Northern
  • Command (USNORTHCOM)/USSOUTHCOM boundary. Policies and operational relationships for Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Belize, Costa Rica, and Panama must be made in a coherent and consistent fashion.
  • DASD for South American Affairs. The major actor of this continent, Brazil, demands much greater time and focus than it has received in recent history, not simply because of its physical size, but because of the combination of its geopolitical weight, its growing economic and energy importance, the sophistication of its armament industry, and its ability to change hearts and minds in the region. Many other countries also require attention in their own right, and for diverging reasons: Colombia, Chile, Peru, and Argentina to name a few. And a key country of significant current concern is Venezuela.
  • DASD for Homeland Defense and Defense Support to Civil Authorities. The office retains its principal functions as it did under the ASD HD. The DASD and his subordinates continue to interface with Homeland Security and other key interagency actors to ensure effective Defense Support to Civil Authority policies.
  • DASD Crisis Management and Mission Assurance. This office, too, remains organized as it was under the ASD HD, performing Defense Critical Infrastructure Program activities as well as conducting the DOD Key functions conducted within the DASD for Homeland Security Integration are melded into the other two DASDs responsible for homeland defense matters, and this "DASD-ship is disestablished. A final issue is the quality and the quantity of the individuals assigned to the organization. Over the years, both of these variables have tended to decline. The high-water mark was probably during the 1980s, when a confluence of factors (events in Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, and elsewhere) focused Presidential-level attention on the region. Nestor Sanchez-a well-known interagency player with years of experience-was the DASD, and he remained for many years. Since that time, the office's principal director shifted from a general/flag officer to a career (typically junior) SES,8 and the country directors shifted from the colonel/General Schedule (GS)-15 level down to major/ lieutenant colonel/GS-13, -14, -15 levels.9 Equally important, the number of personnel assigned to the office declined, routinely totaling fewer than 10 individuals. Moreover, although the military personnel tended to be Army Foreign Area Officers with genuine regional experience, many (if not most) of the civilian personnel had little to none. To be truly effective, the upgrades suggested must include significantly increased numbers of experienced individuals to pay sufficient attention to the region.

The second structural change DOD can make to change the nature of the defense relationship between the United States and the countries of the hemisphere is to establish U.S. Americas Command (USAMCOM). This action is not a replica of the newly created U.S. Africa Command (USAFRICOM), which was essentially carved out of U.S. European Command (USEUCOM); rather, it merges the Theater Security Cooperation (TSC) functions of USNORTHCOM-essentially those related to the external relationship with Mexico, as well as those non-North American Aerospace Defense Command issues specifically related to Canada-with those of the long-standing USSOUTHCOM. The fundamental reason underpinning this UCP change is simple and profound: unity of command. This UCP change eliminates an unnecessary and counterproductive seam between the two existing combatant commands in the hemisphere, and places all counterdrug/ counter narco-terrorism, disaster relief/ humanitarian assistance, and operational and TSC responsibilities for the hemisphere under a single unified commander. While not an original proposal-this idea has been debated for years10 -it is an important complement to the establishment of the ASD WHA office. For the first time, responsibility for defense policy for the entire hemisphere would be consolidated under an Assistant Secretary of Defense, supported operationally by a single combatant commander.

For its part, USNORTHCOM is disestablished as a geographic combatant command, but its homeland defense operational responsibilities remain in its new designation as a sub-unified command of USAMCOM. A major advantage is the removal of TSC responsibilities, which are largely a digression from the internal missions of the command, the most important of which is the defense of the homeland. The command has been distracted by trying to perform its core mission of anticipating and conducting homeland defense and civil support operations to defend, protect, and secure the United States and its interests.

One of the arguments against creating an inclusive USAMCOM is that it would be "unmanageable, with a span of control too large to be effective. Consider the following facts related to other geographic commands: U.S. Pacific Command's span of control includes 39 countries, 60 percent of the world's population, and 50 percent of the world's surface; USEUCOM's span was 92 countries and now is 40 (including Russia); USAFRICOM's span is 53 countries. In contrast, USAMCOM's span of control would be 35 countries, an expansion of just three countries to USSOUTHCOM's current area of focus. The argument that a USAMCOM span of control would be too unwieldy simply does not withstand scrutiny.

The consolidation affirms the principle of unity of command, a longstanding U.S. military principle of war. Current joint doctrine clearly states that "unity of effort, centralized planning and direction, and decentralized execution are key considerations when considering organization of forces.11 This principle should apply when conceptualizing how to organize the Nation's military forces to engage with the militaries of the hemisphere. As one example clearly illustrates, drawing an arbitrary boundary in the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico-as well as between Mexico and Guatemala-exacerbates significant challenges already present for conducting counternarcotics operations in this area. Consider the following: the newly established 4th Fleet, the naval component commander for USSOUTHCOM, has no responsibilities for Mexico, yet USNORTHCOM has no naval component.

If USAMCOM is such a good idea and has been around for years, why has the UCP not been amended to fix these issues? The reasons have varied, but in essence they have all revolved around a similar reality: four-star equities. Despite divergent views from certain offices in the Pentagon, the Joint Staff continues to support having two separate geographic combatant commanders and indeed to expand USNORTHCOM's area. This is in no small part due to the excellent personal relationship between the commanders of both U.S. Southern Command and U.S. Northern Command. Left to their own devices, it is highly unlikely that either the Joint Staff or the Chairman would recommend against the desires of two combatant commanders. Clearly, senior leader attention will be required for this UCP change to occur.

Regional realities have evolved over the years; consequently, resolving this challenge will take significant time and effort by both the United States and all the governments of the hemisphere. Among the main challenges for the hemisphere's governments is to overcome similar histories of authoritarian and military governments. Despite encouraging trends in the 1990s toward democratically elected governments and away from authoritarian regimes, the realities of 2008 caused concern because of a resurgence of militarization across the region.

The matter of the relationship of the U.S. Government with the region is far broader than just DOD. The general lack of U.S. foreign policy attention to the region is due to causes similar to those listed above, and it too requires attention. Although this analysis clearly advocates improved U.S. defense policy and interaction, this must be done as a subset of larger U.S. foreign policy interests in the hemisphere. Absent that, the United States runs the risk of exacerbating the perception of a military-focused approach. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates apparently agrees: "This has led to concern among many organizations . . . about what's seen as a creeping ';militarization' of some aspects of America's foreign policy.12 Getting the U.S. Government to exert greater effort and then obtaining positive results from regional governments will be difficult, but the matter at hand is important, so the effort must be made. Secretary Gates continued: Broadly speaking, when it comes to America's engagement with the rest of the world, it is important that the military is-and is clearly seen to be-in a supporting role to civilian agencies. Our diplomatic leaders-be they in ambassadors' suites or on the seventh floor of the State Department-must have the resources and political support needed to fully exercise their statutory responsibilities in leading American foreign policy. A steep increase of these capabilities is well within reach, as long as there is the political will and the wisdom to do it.13

The ongoing Project on National Security Reform, led by executive director James Locher, is one ongoing effort to restructure the 20th -century national security system to one capable of dealing with 21st-century threats and challenges. The Obama administration should recognize the strategic importance of the region and act accordingly to persuade Congress to provide funding for needed programs. As Admiral James Stavridis noted in his 2008 posture statement, "The U.S., in general, needs to be capable of assisting our partners in addressing underlying conditions of poverty and inequality.14 Those conditions are shaped by political, economic, and social factors and require greater civilian-led interagency efforts, with the military in support.

For defense issues, however, the two previously identified structural changes- simple to articulate but difficult to implement due to a variety of political and bureaucratic obstacles-would give the Secretary of Defense a more robust, authoritative, and effective organizational staff element, coupled with a more coherently organized combatant command/military capability. But these steps in and of themselves do not guarantee success. Well-conceived, -coordinated, and -articulated defense policies for the region still must be crafted, and that is done by experienced specialists. As Senator "Scoop Jackson sagely concluded during his examination of the national security machinery, "The heart problem of national security is not reorganization-it is getting our best people into key foreign policy and defense posts.15 But getting the individuals with the right background and experience will call for a stronger and more effective organizational structure. Finally, sound policies require a well-resourced and culturally aware combatant command to execute them.

In January 2009, the Obama administration assumed the high responsibility of formulating U.S. foreign, national security, and defense policy. The risks confronting the administration as it attempts to understand and adapt to the myriad challenges of this globalized world will test its wisdom, experience, and judgment. The Western Hemisphere is deserving of attention as the new administration seeks to reestablish U.S. credibility abroad.


1 Final Statement of Senator Henry M. Jackson,Chairman, Subcommittee on National PolicyMachinery, November 15, 1961, 4.

2 See "".

3 U.S. Census Bureau, Foreign Trade Division,Washington, DC, February 14, 2008.

4 "McCain's June 20, 2007, address on LatinAmerica, Miami, FL, June 20, 2007, available at "". Capitalized ALL in the originaltranscript.

5 Robert D. Kaplan, "What Rumsfeld Got Right, The Atlantic (July-August 2008), 64-74. The Atlantic (July-August 2008),

6 There are five distinct levels to negotiate before reaching the Secretary: the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense (DASD); the Assistant Secretary of Defense; the Principal Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Policy; the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy; and the Deputy Secretary of Defense.

7 The DASD as of this writing, Steve Johnson, is a notable exception to the recent rule. He is a mature individual with an established record of policy attention to the region. The previous three-Roger Pardo-Maurer (2001-2006), Pedro Pablo Permuy (1998-2000), and Maria Fernandez- Greczmiel (1996-1998)-were political appointees as well, all relatively young (late 30s to early 40s) and inexperienced in the ways of OSD. Taking nothing away from their individual qualifications, the message received by many regional counterparts was that the Pentagon had relegated the regional portfolio to a junior partner.

8 Most of whom have arrived with scant regional knowledge.

9 With the advent of the new National Security Personnel System, the GS-13, -14, -15 grade levels no longer apply, of course, but their use here emphasizes the point.

10 The first formal proposal of which the author is aware was in 1990, presented to then-Chairman General Colin Powell. A more recent proposal was made in the Report of the National Defense Panel of December 1997. See also the recommendations of Lieutenant Colonel John E. Angevine, USA, "Americas Command: Promoting Regional Stability in the Western Hemisphere, U.S. Army War College Strategy Research roject, 2005.

11 Joint Publication 3-0, Doctrine for Joint Operations (Washington, DC: The Joint Staff, September 10, 2001), II-12.

12 Robert M. Gates, Pentagon press conference, July 16, 2008.

13 Ibid.

14 Admiral James G. Stavridis, USN, U.S. Southern Command 2008 Posture Statement20, available at " files/0UI0I1204838891.pdf".

15 Jackson, 4.

Islamic Terrorist Activities in Latin America: Why the Region and the US Should be Concerned

Renee Novakoff

Reprinted with permission from the Julyy 2009 issue of Air & Space Power Journal.

While the world is focused on the war in the Middle East and countering Islamic terrorist group activities there and in South Asia and to a lesser extent the US and Europe, there is only periodic focus on other regions vulnerable to Islamic terrorist activity; Latin America, the Caribbean, and Africa. This article focuses on the first two areas and describes a consistent pattern of Islamic extremist activity over the past twenty years that ranges from revenue generation and logistic support to more sinister activities. This paper makes the case for why US, Latin American, and Caribbean leaders need to be diligent in halting the ongoing terrorist-related activity in those regions.

There are many myths about Islamic terrorist activities in Latin America and the Caribbean. Most literature on the subject paints a dire threat, stating that attacks are imminent either in the region or from the region. Just as much literature downplays the threat, stating that the over 3 million Muslims or about 1% of the population in the region are peaceful and just trying to make a living. As is usually the case, the truth is somewhere in the middle. In the Triborder Area (TBA) of Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay alone, counter-terrorism organizations have uncovered over 50 people suspected of sympathizing with extremism and of financing Islamic terrorism over the past 10 years, according to local media.2

Undoubtedly the vast majority of the individuals living in the vibrant muslim communities scattered throughout the region have no ties to terrorism and even abhor terrorism. Evidence from multiple sources in several different countries also shows that there are individuals in the region who are affiliated with terrorist groups and use the region as a cooling off area, a revenue generation area, or as a recruiting pool. Senator Richard Lugar issued a report in 2007 that stated that while there are no operational cells in Latin America or the Caribbean that pose a direct threat to the continental United States, pockets of people in the TBA, Venezuela, and Guyana are ideological, financial, and logistical supporters of terrorist groups in the Middle East.3 In fact, Islamic radicals in the TBA, Guyana, and Trinidad have launched multiple operations in and from the region over the last 20 years.

Attempted Islamic Coup in the Western Hemisphere

The Jammat al Muslimeen (JAM), a Sunni organization, is Trinidad and Tobago's most notorious Muslim organization and the only organization in the region to attempt a coup to install a sharia-based government. The group leader, Abu Bakr, instigated a bloody coup in 1990. With over 100 JAM members, Bakr led attacks against the parliament building and took over Trinidad and Tobago's television network. The standoff between the JAM and the government lasted 5 days while rioting and looting gripped Trinidad's capital. Many people were killed. Bakr finally surrendered to authorities, but was only jailed temporarily as part of negotiations.4 Officials released Bakr from jail in 1992. He continues to lead the JAM and the Trinidadian authorities have re-arrested him on several occasions over the years. Most recently, he faces charges of sedition, promoting a terrorist act, and inciting others to breach the peace. He currently remains free.

Abu Bakr maintains ties to questionable individuals and organizations. He considers Libya's Muammar Qadhafi a friend.5 Bakr is also well regarded in Sudan where he is considered one of the most significant Muslims in the west.6 In 2004, the JAM website had links to a Hamas website.7 The website had several other links to jihadist websites and rhetoric.8 According to a US undercover agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, Bakr's group maintained ties with Afghanistan as they were shipping heroin from Afghanistan to the US via Trinidad.9 JAM members are implicated in at least talking to members of the 2007 plot to blow up John F. Kennedy airport10 and Abu Bakr studied at university with one of the operation's plotters.11 As of 2005, JAM members were still being charged with weapons possessions; two members had 569 rounds of ammunition, a hand grenade, and a rifle during a local sting operation against them.12 In 2004, another JAM member was tried in US court for possession of 60 AK-47 rifles, 10 MAC-10 machine guns, and 10 silencers.13

Hizballah Attacks in Latin America

According to Israeli terrorism expert Ely Karmon,14 Hizballah has had a presence in Latin America since the late 1980s. It is present in the TBA, Colombia, and Venezuela. Hizballah members use free trade areas for legal trade and illegal smuggling activities. A Sao Paulo newspaper reported that it is common to find young men on the streets of Foz do Iguaçu, Brazil one of the two major cities that make up the TBA, with Hizballah tee-shirts.15

Hizballah has an operational presence in the region. According to the Argentine government, Hizballah supporters and Iran were responsible for the bombings of the 1992 Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires and the Argentine-Israeli Mutual Association in 1994. Argentina recently successfully lobbied Interpol to release international warrants for several Iranians it has charged with the bombings.16 Islamic terrorists operating out of the Triborder Region leveled the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires with a powerful bomb on 17 March 1992, killing 29 people and wounding 252. The bombing was allegedly carried out by Hizballah and coordinated by terrorist mastermind Imad Mugniyah, the official in charge of Hizballah foreign operations.17 The 1994 bombing of the Argentine-Israeli Mutual Association (AIMA) was the stronger of the two bombs and resulted in 82 deaths. Argentine officials claim a white Renault van holding a 600 pound bomb was driven into the seven story building where the explosion sheared off the front of the building.18

In another incident which has gone unclaimed, on 19 July 1992, a suicide bomber said to be Lebanese and unable to speak Spanish or English boarded a commuter flight in Colón, Panama, and detonated a bomb, killing all 21 people aboard, including 12 Jewish and Israeli businessmen, and three US citizens. The bomber was said to have a poorly forged US passport and to have not been in Panama very long.19

Since then, several additional planned acts of Islamic fundamentalist terrorism have been thwarted. For example, the arrest in 1998 of a senior Abu Nidal Organization leader in Lima, Peru, thwarted a reported plan to blow up the Israeli Embassy and a synagogue there.20 According to O Globo's US sources, an Islamic extremist group supposedly planned an attack against the US Embassy in Montevideo, Uruguay, in April 2001, at the same time as a planned attack against the US Embassy in Quito, Ecuador. The discovery of the plot (and the consequent reinforcement of security) thwarted the attacks.21

Al-Qaida and Other Sunni Links to Latin America

Over the years there have been several disturbing links from Latin America and the Caribbean to militant Sunni individuals and terrorist groups. A Brazilian magazine admits that Usama bin Ladin operative and 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammad (KSM) spent nearly 20 days in Brazil in 1995 to visit members of the muslim community there.22 While he was there, the magazine claims KSM founded a charity to help finance Usama bin Ladin. Khalid Shaikh Mohammad reportedly was hosted by Khaled Rezk El Sayed Take El Din, who is considered the mentor of the Holy Land Foundation in the TBA.23 He remains in the region. US Treasury officials have designated The Holy Land Foundation as a terrorist supporter, frozen its assets, and said the Foundation was sending funds to Hamas.

In 1996, the Brazilian police reportedly discovered that Marwan al Safadi, an explosives expert accused of having participated in the first attack on the US World Trade Center in 1993, was living in the TBA.24 In November 1996, Paraguayan authorities learned that Islamic groups in the Triborder region were planning to blow up the US Embassy in Paraguay to coincide with the first anniversary of the bombing of the Saudi National Guard headquarters in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Police who raided Safadi's apartment in Ciudad del Este found it filled with explosives, pistols equipped with silencers, double-barreled rifles, false Canadian and US passports, and a large amount of cash.25

Eventually, Brazilian authorities captured Safadi and extradited him to the United States.26 Although sentenced to 18 months in US prison, US authorities eventually extradited Safadi to Canada, where he received a 9-year prison sentence for drug trafficking. However, al-Safadi escaped from Canada's prisons 3 times, finally succeeding in escaping from prison in Montreal and fleeing back to South America with a false passport.27

Marwan Safadi's case was not the first instance of Islamic Jihad terrorist activities in Latin America. In 1992, Interpol agents arrested seven alleged members of the Islamic Jihad in Quito, Ecuador. The agents claimed that they planned attacks on the Israeli ambassador in Bogotá, Colombia.28

In Brazil, an al-Gama' at Islamiyya cell had been operating in Foz do Iguacu since 1995.29 Mohammed Ali Hassan Mokhles had left Egypt in 1993 and established residency in Foz do Iguacu, Brazil.30 Latin American press claimed that Mokhles was sent to the TBA to collect funds for the Middle East and to conduct logistic support activities such as forging passports or other documents meant for Islamic jihadists.31 Press reports claim he was a member or even local leader of al-Gama' at Islamiyya, a group linked to al-Qaida.32 Mokhles reportedly attended a training camp in Khost, Afghanistan where he received combat training prior to the Luxor assault.33 An investigative expose on Mokhles claims that US and Egyptian information says Mokhles may have been involved in the first World Trade Center explosion in New York.34 Uruguayan officials arrested Mokhles in 1999 while he was trying to cross the border from Brazil with false documents. Mokhles was so desperate to have his pending extradition to Egypt overturned that while in jail awaiting travel to Egypt he attacked two inmates, hoping that he would be tried for those assaults in Uruguay and be able to stay. In 2003, Mohammed Ali Hassan Mokhles was extradited from Uruguay to Egypt.35 Egyptian officials had successfully argued that he was involved in planning a terrorist attack which killed at least 58 tourists in Luxor Egypt in 1997.

Colombian officials arrested Mohamed Abed Abdel Aal, another leader of the al Qaida-affiliated al Gama' at Islamiyya in October 1998.36 He had been in Italy under "surveillance," according to Colonel Germán Jaramillo Piedrahita, the head of Colombia's intelligence police, who was interviewed by Colombia's Radio Caracol on 21 October 1998.37 Abdel Aal was wanted by Egyptian authorities for his involvement in two terrorist massacres: the attack in Luxor, Egypt; and an incident in which terrorists killed 20 Greek tourists by raking them with gunfire outside their Cairo hotel on 18 April 1996.38 Jaramillo explained that sometime in 1998 Abdel Aal boarded a plane in Amsterdam bound for Ecuador because the Colombian consulate in Italy denied him a visa to travel directly to Bogotá. Sometime during 1998, Abdel Aal reportedly participated in transactions with Colombian narcotraffickers that involved arms, drugs, and money, and may have been returning to raise money.39 Colombian police arrested Mohamed Abed Abdel Aal on 19 October 1998, two days after he arrived in Bogotá by bus from Quito.40 He was subsequently deported to Ecuador. Abel Aal was later reportedly turned over to Egyptian authorities.41

US and Panamanian officials reported that Adnan el Shukrijumah, currently on the US Federal Bureau of Investigation BOLO (Be on the Look Out For) list as an al Qaida operative, was in Panama in April 2001, possibly surveying the Panama Canal.42 When Khalid Shaik Mohammed was captured by US forces in March 2003, he claimed Shukrijuma was in charge of a new attack. Shukrijuma holds US, Guyanese, and Trinidadian passports.43 US officials claim he was trained by al Qaida to operate as a terrorist organizer and to lead or coordinate a terrorist assault.44 In June 2004, the Honduran Security Ministry announced that Shukrijuma had plotted to attack the Panama Canal.45

The press also claims that Brazilian authorities broke up an al-Gama'at al Islammiyya cell in April 2002 with the detention of a Sunni extremist, Mohammed Ali Soliman, also wanted by Egypt for involvement in the Luxor attacks.46 Another source claims Soliman was involved in other unspecified attacks in Egypt in 1994.47 According to Brazilian press reports, he too allegedly was trained in camps in Afghanistan and is associated with Mokhles.48 Brazilian officials released Soliman in September 2002 claiming that Egyptian officials failed to give Brazil sufficient evidence of Soliman's involvement in the Luxor attacks. He lives in Brazil.

Another group, Hizballah Latin America, has two cells. One is in Venezuela and the other in Argentina. It is unclear what the connection is between this group and Hizballah, but the group claims solidarity with Hizballah, Iran, and the Islamist revolution. In Venezuela, the group took on the name, Venezuela Hezbollah apparently sometime in 2005. The majority of its members are from the Wayuu tribe, a small indigenous group in Venezuela which converted to Islam a few years ago under their leader Teodoro Darnott.49 In 2006, Venezuelan officials found two explosive devises in Caracas, one near the US Embassy. The devises did not detonate, but contained pro-Hizballah pamphlets. Venezuela Hezbollah took responsibility for the bombs and threatened further attacks.50 Venezuelan authorities subsequently arrested and convicted Darnott. In Argentina, the Hizballah Latin America group has direct ties to Iran through the Arab Argentine Home and the Argentine-Islamic Association-ASAI de La Plata which are financed by and cooperate with the Iranian Embassy in Buenos Aires.51 It also has ties to more radical Muslims in Argentina and its website has extremely anti-Semitic and anti-Israel propaganda.52

Triborder Area: Local Investigators Crack Down on Terrorist Suspects

The Triborder Area of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay is one of the most notorious in Latin America as an area where all types of criminality takes place, including harboring of Islamic terrorist facilitators. It is widely accepted among terrorism specialists that individuals associated with Hizballah and to a lesser extent associated with Sunni groups, live and work in this region. Many articles and news stories have been written about the area in the US and regional press. The US Treasury Department has frozen the assets of a number of individuals who live in this area, claiming they are associated with terrorist groups. The Islamic terrorist group affiliation, coupled with the illegal commerce that takes place in the region, create a concerning mix. As early as 1995, Ambassador Philip Wilcox, former State Department Coordinator for Counter-Terrorism, testified before the International Relations Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives that Hizballah activities in the Triborder region involved narcotics, smuggling, and terrorism. He further asserted that Hizballah also had cells in Colombia and Venezuela, was engaging in fund-raising and recruitment, and was receiving guidance and logistical support from Iranian intelligence officers assigned to Iranian embassies in the region.53

A strong TBA Hizballah leadership exists. Paraguayan officials first attempted to arrest Assad Ahmad Barakat in 2002. He is currently in jail in Paraguay for tax evasion. He lived and worked in the TBA area with his brother Hattem. He also had businesses in Iquique, Chile. Local US officials, and the press have alternately called him the Hizballah leader in the TBA, the Hizballah finance chief, and one of the Hizballah clan leaders. His brother reportedly took over the daily activities of the clan until he too was arrested by the Paraguayans, for document fraud. Assad Barakat has another brother who is a sheikh at a Hizballah mosque in Lebanon. Assad's exact title within Hizballah may not be known, but it is clear that he has strong connections to Hizballah. Paraguayan police found several documents in his office and computer when they arrested him. The documents were from Hizballah leaders thanking Assad for his support. One letter was from Hizballah leader Shaik Hassan Nasrallah, thanking Assad for money for the martyrs program. Meanwhile, Paraguayan reporters have also Linked Assad Barakat to al Qaida by claiming he owned the Mondial Engineering and Construction Company which is suspected of having made contributions to al Qaida.54

Also in 2002, the Paraguayan police arrested Ali Nizar Darhough, nephew of Mohammad Dahrough who was a well known Sunni leader in the TBA.55 Paraguayan officials told New Yorker reporter Jeffrey Goldberg that Ali Nizar and his uncle were the al Qaida point men for the TBA.56 Mohammad Dahrough's name was reportedly found in an address book belonging to Abu Zubaydah, a high ranking al-Qaida official captured by the US.57 Mohammad escaped the TBA in September 1998 when Paraguayan officials went out to arrest him for making statements in support of terrorism and for planning possible attacks against US, British, and Israeli facilities in the TBA.58 Mohammad is last reported to be in Dubai.59 Press reports claim he left TBA to join al-Qaida.60 Ali Nizar was sending as much as $80,000 a month to banks in the US, the Middle East, and Europe.61 Other reports claim that Ali Nizar sent $10 million in 2000-2001 from the TBA to US dummy corporations that al-Qaida and HAMAS used as fronts.62 Most of the money went into an account under Mohammad's name in Dallas, Texas which is a key site for the Holy Land Foundation which the US Treasury says helped to fund HAMAS.63 When arrested, Ali Nizar had large quantities of Iraqi, Jordanian, and Slovenian bank notes.64 Ali Nizar was convicted in Paraguay in 2003 of tax evasion and he received a 5-year sentence.65

US Treasury Department Freezes Hizballah Assets in TBA

Most of the activity the individuals associated with Islamic terrorists are involved with are revenue generation and logistics such as document fraud and money laundering. The Paraguayan media reported in April 2006 that millions of dollars were being funneled from the TBA to the Middle East. Several governments in Latin America and the Caribbean take exception to US allegations that local supporters of Islamic terrorist groups raise funds for the terrorist groups in their countries. In December 2006, the US Treasury Department announced that 9 individuals in Brazil and Paraguay were financing Islamic terrorism, several of whom the Argentine government charged, were involved in logistics support for the 1994 AMIA bombing. Ali Muhammad Kazan is on that list. As a manager of a Lebanese school in the TBA, he allegedly collected $500,000 for Hizballah. Another alleged Hizballah associate, Sobhi Mahmoud Fayad, sent over $3 million to the Hizballah Martyrs Foundation in 2000 alone, according to documents the Paraguayan police found when they arrested him. Yet another individual, Mohamed Tarabain Chamas, is the manager of a five-story commercial building in Ciudad del Este, Paraguay (part of the TBA). The Treasury Department says he is responsible for counter-intelligence for Hizballah in the TBA.66

Action Returns to the Caribbean Area

In May 2006, the Trinidad Express quotes Trinidadian National Security Minister Martin Joseph as confirming that 2 Trinidad and Tobago citizens who were jailed in Canada for involvement in acts of terrorism had been deported to Trinidad and Tobago. These were likely Barry Adams, alias Tyrone Cole and Wali Muhammad, Alias Robert Johnson, who are believed to be members of the Jammat al Fuqra, a militant Pakistan-based terrorist group. The men had been imprisoned in Canada in 1994 for conspiring to set off bombs in a Hindu temple and a cinema in Toronto. Prosecutors claimed that the men had lived in Texas under aliases for several years before attempting to carry out their plan.67 They served their full sentences without parole and Canada deported them upon their release.68

In June 2007, a joint Guyanese/Trinidadian/FBI investigation culminated in the arrest of 4 individuals who plotted to blow up gas lines leading to John F. Kennedy airport in New York.69 The individuals were US, Guyanese, and Trinidadian.70 The case remains pending in US courts. One of the alleged leaders of the plot, Abdul Kadir, is reportedly an acquaintance of JAM leader Abu Bakr in Trinidad.71 Members of the group allegedly met with JAM members to obtain support for their plot. Kadir is a former Guyanese parliament member.72

In June 2007, Trinidad's Attorney General John Jeremie told the local press that he believed the country's most notorious group, the JAM, was under control, but that the "landscape had changed since 1990. . . the structure is different, there are a number of different splinter groups and they pose as much as a threat we think as the original group posed in 1990."73 He went on to say these splinter groups are also involved with criminal activity.74

Jamaica is another area of concern, especially now that Sheikh Abdullah el Faisal, the extremist cleric who was convicted in the Britain for soliciting murder and inciting racial violence has been deported back to Jamaica.75 El-Faisal, a Jamaican-born Islamic cleric, was the first person in more than a century to be convicted under Britain's 1861 Offences Against the Person Act after he was found guilty of soliciting murder and fueling racial hatred in 2003.76 During his trial, tapes of his sermons were played where he extolled his listeners to "kill Hindus and Jews and other non Muslims, like cockroaches."77 During his four-week trial in 2003, followers watched as the court heard el-Faisal's voice exhorting young Muslims to accept the deaths of women and children as "collateral damage" and to "learn to fly planes, drive tanks... load your guns and to use missiles."78 Following the completion of his sentence on those charges in Britain, authorities there deported him in May 2007.79 Jermain Lindsay one of the 2005 London transport system bombers, was also born in Jamaica and connected to Faisal. Press reports claim that Shaikh Faisal influenced Lindsay to partake in the UK bombing plot. He reportedly attended at least one of el Faisal's sermons and listened to his tapes.

What's Next?

The above list of suspicious and in some cases outright terrorist activities, shows there is reason for Latin American and Caribbean nations to be vigilant against Islamic terrorist group activity. The US also needs to continue to pay attention to possible inroads by these terrorist groups and by other Islamic extremists through Latin America and the Caribbean. The list of arrests and convictions also shows that many of the governments in the region are aware of the dangers associated with these terrorist groups.

Two equally likely possibilities exist for future Islamic extremist activity in Latin America and the Caribbean. One possibility will allow for some warning, the other will not without increased vigilance. Either course of action would result in the loss of innocent lives.

The first scenario, and the one that we might have some advance notice of, is an attack by Hizballah. If relations between Iran and the US or Israel deteriorate, it is possible Iran would use its well-organized Hizballah group in the region as a surrogate to launch attacks against either Israel or the US, much like it did in Buenos Aires in the 1990s. Under this scenario, an attack could happen using local Hizballah sympathizers for logistics and support and the attack would likely take place in the region. With this scenario, counter-terrorist specialists would have some warning that an attack could take place based on the deteriorating relations with Iran, but would likely have little warning of where it would take place.

Another, equally likely scenario, but one that is harder for counter-terrorism professionals to plan against, would be a group of homegrown extremists planning and launching an attack against US interests either in the region or from the region in the US. This would be much like the JFK airport plot scenario. Without vigilance by US officials and officials in the region, it would be difficult to halt this type of plot. Increased vigilance and support from the populaces in the Caribbean and Latin America to report unusual activity is needed to help mitigate this threat.

Clearly, Islamic terrorist groups in Latin America and the Caribbean pose threats to US interests. Ignoring these threats or explaining them away as US witch hunts gives those who would do harm to innocents more space to plot and plan.


1. This article reflects the views of the author and not those of the US government.

2. Asuncion ABC, "About 50 Alleged Extremists Were Investigated in the TBA Region," 17 July 05.

3. La Nacion, "US Concerned About Triborder," by Hugo Alconada Mon, 21 January 07

4. Terrorism Monitor, Vol 3, Issue 20, "Al-Qaida's Inroads into the Caribbean," 21 October 2005

5. Port of Spain Trinidad Express, "Time to Mount Tighter Musilmeen Watch," by Camini Marajh, 22 August 2004.

6. Ibid

7. Ibid

8. Ibid

9. Port of Spain Trinidad Express, "T&T-a heroin Rout to US," by Darryl Heeralal, 29 May 2005

10. Georgetown Starbroek News, "Kadir, Ibrahim Remanded" by Nigel Williams , 5 June 2007

11. Port of Spain Trinidad Express, "Jeremie: Splinter Groups of Jamaat Pose Danger," by Juhel Browne, 6 June 2007

12. Port of Spain Trinidad Express, 29 November 2005

13. Port of Spain Newsday, "Extradition of a Musilmeen Member," by Francis Joseph, 26 September 2004

14. Santiago El Mercurio,"The Presence of Hizballah in Latin America" by Juan Antonio Munoz, 11 February 2007

15. Sao Paulo Folha, "Shia From TBA Do Not Comment on Hizballah," by Jose Maschio 18 December 2006

16. Herald Tribune, "Interpol votes against Iran in Argentina terror case," 6 November 2007

17. Library of Congress, "A Global Overview of Narcotics-funded Terrorist and other Extremist Groups," May 2002

18. The New Yorker, "Hezbollah Sets Up Operations in South America and the United States," by Jeffrey Goldberg, 28 October 2002

19. Library of Congress, "A Global Overview of Narcotics-funded Terrorist and other Extremist Groups," May 2002

20. Ibid

21. Ibid

22. Rio de Janeiro Epoca, "Are the Terrorists Here?" by Matheus Machado and Murilo Ramos, 12 March 2007

23. Asuncion ABC, "About 50 Alleged Extremists Were Investigated in the TBA Region," 17 JUL 05

24. Ibid

25. Library of Congress, "A Global Overview of Narcotics-funded Terrorist and other Extremist Groups," May 2002

26. Rio de Janeiro Epoca, "Are the Terrorists Here?" by Matheus Machado and Murilo Ramos, 12 March 2007

27. Library of Congress, "A Global Overview of Narcotics-funded Terrorist and other Extremist Groups," May 2002

28. Ibid

29. Porto Alegre Zero Hora, "Police Say That Terrorist Cell Dismantled With Soliman's Arrest," 17 April 2002

30. Montevideo El Pais, "Egypt Meets Uruguayan Court's Terms to Extradite Terrorist Suspect," 2 July 2003

31. Buenos Aires Clarin, "Bin Ladin Followers in TBA Probed," by Daniel Sanoro, 18 July 1999

32. Asuncion ABC, "Order From Above Stops al-Gama' at Suspect Probe," by Vladimir Jara, 8 July 2002

33. Cairo MENA, "Man Extradited to Egypt for 1999 Terrorist Attack at Luxor," 10 July 2003

34. London Al Sharq al Awsat, "Paper on Arrest of Islamist In Uruguay," by Eduardo Privi, 11 February 1999

35. Cairo MENA, "Man Extradited to Egypt for 1999 Terrorist Attack at Luxor," 10 July 2003

36. Library of Congress, "A Global Overview of Narcotics-funded Terrorist and other Extremist Groups," May 2002

37. Ibid

38. Ibid

39. Ibid

40. Ibid

41. Ibid

42. Terrorism Monitor, vol 3 Issue 20, "Al Qaida's Inroads into the Caribbean" by Chris Zambelis, 21 October 2005

43., 11 November 2007

44. Ibid

45. Ibid

46. Porto Alegre Zero Hora, "Police Say That Terrorist Cell Dismantled With Soliman's Arrest," 17 April 2002

47. Sao Paulo Folha de Sao Paulo, "Brazilian Federal Police Arrest Alleged Egyptian Terrorist in Foz do Iguacu," by Jose Maschio, 16 April 2002

48. Porto Alegre Zero Hora, "Brazilian Authorities Treat Soliman Arrest as Isolated Case," 17 April 2002

49. Santiago El Mercurio, "Chile: Israeli Expert Discussed Hizballah Presence in Latin America," by Juan Antonio Munoz, 11 February 2007

50. Institute for Counter-Terrorism, "Hezbollah AmericaLatina: Strange Group or Real Threat?" by Dr. Ely Karmon, 14 November 2006

51. Santiago El Mercurio, "Chile: Israeli Expert Discussed Hizballah Presence in Latin America," by Juan Antonio Munoz, 11 February 2007

52. Institute for Counter-Terrorism, "Hezbollah AmericaLatina: Strange Group or Real Threat?" by Dr. Ely Karmon, 14 November 2006

53. Library of Congress, "A Global Overview of Narcotics-funded Terrorist and other Extremist Groups," May 2002

54. Ibid

55. Ibid

56. The New Yorker, "Hezbollah Sets Up Operations in South America and the United States," by Jeffrey Goldberg 28 October 2002

57. Asuncion ABC Color, "Triborder Region Injects $20Million a Year for Islamic Cause," 18 July 2005

58. Asuncion ABC Color, "Egyptian Suspect Wanted in AMIA Bombing Case," 22 September 1998

59. Asuncion ABC Color, 23 September 2001

60. Ibid

61. The New Yorker, "Hezbollah Sets Up Operations in South America and the United States," by Jeffrey Goldberg 28 October 2002

62. Asuncion ABC Color, "Triborder Region Injects $20Million a Year for Islamic Cause," 18 July 2005

63. Ibid

64. Asuncion ABC Color, "Police Arrest HAMAS Member's Nephew on Piracy Charges," 3 July 2002

65. Asuncion ABC Color, 28 August 2003

66. Asuncion ABC Color, "Bank Accounts for Sending Money Abriad Detected," by Hector Guerin, 7 April 2006

67. Sao Paulo Folha, "Shia From TBA Do Not Comment on Hizballah," by Jose Maschio 18 DEC 06

68. Asuncion ABC, 30 May 02

69. Rio de Janeiro Epoca, "Are theTerrorist Here?" by Matheus Machado, 12 March 2007

70. Port of Spain Trinidad Express, 5 May 2006

71. Port of Spain the Trinidad Guardian, "Trinis Deported for Terror Links," by Dominic Kalispersad, 8 April 2006

72. Ibid

73. Georgetown Guyana Chronicle, "Police Say Maps from Kadir's Home Date Back to 1980s," by Mark Ramotar, 9 June 2007

74. Port of Spain Trinidad Express, "Jeremie: Splinter Groups of Jamaat Pose Danger," by Juhel Browne, 6 June 2007

75. The Sunday Observer, "Islamic Community Extends Olive Branch to El-Faisal," by Petre Williams, 27 May 2007

76. The Times, "7/7 Hate Preacher Deported to Jamaica," 25 May 2007

77. Ibid

78. Kingston the Gleaner, "We Will Meet with El Faisal, While We Investigate," 29 May 2007

79. The Times, "7/7 Hate Preacher Deported to Jamaica," 25 May 2007

War Without Borders: The Ecuador-Colombia Crisis of 2008 and Inter-American Security

Dr. Gabriel Marcella

Reprinted with permission from the April 2009 issue of Air & Space Power Journal.

Westphalia in the Andes

Climate change, deforestation, pollution, contraband, weapons proliferation, terrorism, money-laundering, illegal immigration, and gangs combine with the diffusion of technology and modern communication to mock international order. Andean states are experiencing a profound crisis of authority, governance, democratic legitimacy, and territorial security.1 The crisis is superimposed upon a tradition of laissez faire on ungoverned space and border control and continuing disagreement about terrorism. Given this background, the institutional capacity, the political will, preventive diplomacy, and the mechanisms for effective security cooperation and conflict resolution between states have not caught up to the demands of the new geopolitical realities of wars without borders. An assortment of international criminals prosper from weak borders and weak states.

Midnight in the Amazon

At half-past-midnight on March 1, three A37 aircraft and five Brazilian-made Super Tucanos of the Colombian air force fired precision-guided bombs into a camp of the terrorist-narco-trafficking Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) 1.8 kilometers inside the border in a difficult jungle area of Ecuador, an area known as Angostura.2 Target of the attack was long time FARC leader Raśl Reyes, who was killed along with 24 others (including four Mexicans and an Ecuadorean).3 Colombian forces recovered the extensive computer files of Reyes, which would become a trove of information.

The camp was located in the north-easternmost part of Ecuador, across from an area in Colombia which has been the redoubt of the FARC's Front 48. Nine hours after the strike, President Alvaro Uribe of Colombia called President Rafael Correa, his Ecuadorean counterpart. Correa was caught totally unaware and led a verbal and diplomatic assault against Uribe and Colombia. It took the Ecuadorean Army 6 hours to reach Angostura, an area so remote that the last Ecuadorean patrol there took place a year before.

By mid-April, Correa's aggressive tone had moderated to a warning that if the FARC crossed into Ecuador, it would mean war, a statement that was well-received in Colombia. Nonetheless, his accusation seemed on the surface to be one of surprising innocence, since generations of Ecuadoreans have memory of border violations by terrorists, traffickers, and contrabandists along its borders, in addition to high levels of crime, and an intense national debate about the ecological integrity of its Amazon region. Moreover, the Ecuadorean polity was hardly innocent in the strategic use of military power. In 1995, its armed forces performed superbly in a short war against Peru, culminating a border conflict between the two countries that had lasted two centuries.

Indeed, the attack had been prepared. Colombia was able to fix the location of Reyes at the camp via an informant on the night of February 29. Reyes had been moving around various camps in Ecuador. Following March 1, there ensued a torrent of incandescent insults and reactions between Ecuador, Colombia, and Venezuela that lay bare the contradictions that haunt Latin America when it comes to fighting terrorism and international crime.4 The March 1 attack and its aftermath are a part of a larger tableau that depicts the vulnerabilities of weak democracy to the corruption by narcotics, intimidation by terrorism, the need for effective civil-military relations in confronting, the contradictions that populism generates in foreign policy, as well as understanding the unintended consequences of the application of American power, even when intentions are noble.

The results of the attack added strategic value to Colombia's war against the FARC. Reyes was a member of the secretariat of the murderous narco-terrorist FARC. The FARC camp had been in existence for at least 3 months, disposing of such amenities as beds, two gasoline powered generators, a satellite dish, television, training area, chicken coop and pig pen, and stored food, in addition to an arsenal of weapons.5 Thus the FARC had established a semi-permanent site in Ecuador.

Clashing Principles

On March 8 the Summit of the Group of Rio meeting in the Dominican Republic unanimously condemned Colombia's violation of sovereignty. Later, the OAS agreed on a consensus resolution on March 17 that "rejected" the Colombian incursion, stating the venerable international law principle: "no state or group of states has the right to intervene, either directly or indirectly, for whatever motive, in the internal or external affairs of another."6 The resolution did not condemn Colombia but reiterated the commitment of states to fight irregular groups.

Thus the eternal dilemma of conflicting values in international relations: which is higher, nonintervention or self-defense? Should Colombia have restrained itself, accepting the risk of having its citizens attacked, and informed Ecuadorean authorities prior to the attack? Colombia could not let this opportunity go by. Nonetheless, a judicious approach would have a timely diplomatic call on the night of the attack from Uribe to Correa would helped build confidence in the bilateral relationship, instead of adding to strains and misunderstandings that had been developing for years between the two countries. Three points support these judgments:

1. All states reserve the right of self-defense. Colombia's action could be seen as a preemptive, instead of a preventive or precautionary, military strike made necessary by the FARC's decades-old war against the state and people of Colombia.7 That the FARC would strike again had the highest certitude, therefore justifying the preemptive attack. The FARC habitually used safe havens in Ecuador because of Ecuador's inability to control its border and territory, and in Venezuela, because of difficult terrain and the apparent laissez faire complicity and demonstrated support of Caracas for the FARC. According to the International Crisis Group of Brussels, the weak link in Colombia's security policy was its undefended and open borders.8 Brazil and Peru made serious efforts to prevent the FARC from using their territories. Moreover, Uribe's military has been pursuing an aggressive decapitation strategy against FARC leaders,9 with increasing success. The head of the Colombian National Police stated that this was the fifth time that Colombian forces had attempted to strike Reyes, who had moved around to various locations in Ecuador. Given this information, Colombia's military strategy and its implications for Ecuador should have been well known to Ecuadorean statesmen.
2. Operational security for the plan to strike the FARC might be compromised "Because we didn't trust Ecuador," said Colombia's Defense Minister, Juan Manuel Santos.10 According to Bogotá's El Tiempo, Colombia's intelligence service, the Department of Administrative Security (DAS) had informed Ecuador 16 times and as recently as November 26, 2007, including providing a document with the exact location of 25 FARC "bases" inside Ecuador. Colombia alerted other governments about FARC activities on their soils: Argentina four times, Bolivia twice, Brazil seven, Peru four, and Venezuela ten. The DAS report stated that 80 percent of the alerts received no response or "evasive" answers.11 Given apparent ambivalence (if not support) towards the FARC among members of the Correa government, operational security became paramount in Colombian planning. Allowing the FARC and Reyes to escape would be an embarrassing setback for Colombia and a menace for Ecuador.
3. The rudimentary system for early warning and crisis management between Colombia and Ecuador was ineffective.12 Colombia violated Ecuadorean air space in its campaign against the FARC in 2006. As a consequence, Ecuador activated its air defense, while the two defense ministers made a joint declaration to improve security and avoid border incidents. The Ecuadorean Army maintained 13 frontier detachments.13 In January and February 2006, Ecuador activated the air defense system in an effort to prevent border incursions. At the time, Defense Minister Oswaldo Jarrín stated: "The Ecuadorean Army will act in legitimate defense against any element that intends to violate the national sovereignty."14

It is uncertain what role corruption in high places may have played in Ecuador's response, but there were recent intimations of an attempt at vote buying involving a military intelligence officer and a civilian opposition political figure.15 Earlier, Correa was accused of manipulating promotions among senior admirals of the Ecuadorean Navy. Minister of Defense Wellington Sandoval stated to El Comercio on March 30 that coordination between Ecuador's military intelligence and the police failed.16 Sandoval also stated that "we knew that Reyes was in Ecuador frequently."

On the surface these developments in Ecuador's civil-military relations suggest that military intelligence did not have confidence that civilian officials of the government could be trusted, since those same officials might compromise the information to the FARC. Dysfunctional civil-military relations can be costly for national defense. It appears that at the decision-making level, the Quito government did not have a smoothly functioning working relationship between Correa, his senior advisors, and the military leadership.17 Moreover, by April 2008, slightly more than a year in power, he had appointed four defense ministers (the first was killed in a helicopter accident), all innocent about defense strategy. At the same time, the Correa government reoriented the military to social and economic development missions and away from national defense. The reorientation risked weakening the link between defense strategy and military strategy.

The fluid domestic political context of weak intelligence coordination, poor border control, distempers in civil-military relations, and the audacity and professionalism of the Colombian attack, engendered strategic surprise. It may also have had the psychological impact of humiliating Correa, leading him to act tough abroad in order to be respected at home. A preventive strike could not be expected to be welcome by Ecuador, as the British strategic analyst Colin S. Gray asserts: "A state and society militarily bested in a surprise assault cannot be assumed to be willing to cooperate with the victorious power of the preventor."18 This was not the first time that Colombia had inserted forces in Ecuador. For example, in January 2006, Colombian planes entered Ecuadorean airspace to pursue a FARC column reputedly containing Raúl Reyes. Uribe declared at the time: "Our Public Force entered Ecuador involuntarily in order to prevent the FARC terrorist group, in violation of Ecuadorean territory, from continuing to launch attacks to kill our soldiers and police . . . in addition to doing damage to our civilian citizens."19 Ecuador recalled its ambassador to Bogotá for consultations. In recent years there were numerous violations by Colombian aircraft. Thus, the two countries developed a pattern of responses that served to weaken the trust between them, without developing some institutionalized method for dealing with the incursions and the potential for miscalculation, or worse yet ceding the initiative to the FARC.

While Colombia was succeeding in driving the FARC to the uninhabited southeastern portion of the country closing its lines of communication, statesmen in Ecuador saw the impact differently, more displaced people as refugees and more FARC crossings, and growing Colombian power against weak Ecuador. The declining trust between the two capitals was also evident in the dispute over the spraying of diluted glyphosate by Colombian aircraft to eliminate coca plantations adjacent to the Ecuadorean border. The dispute culminated in studies and counter studies, and rhetorical threats by Correa, even though the spraying aircraft maintained a 10 kilometer distance from the border.20

The attack of March 1 may have humiliated Ecuador because it portrayed its vulnerability to its much stronger neighbor, whose military capabilities had been significantly enhanced by the United States. Therefore, the Colombian attack had a profound psychological impact on the political balance within Ecuador, one that strengthened the popularity of Correa, and led to soul-searching among the political class and intellectual community. The debate over the release of intelligence about FARC related activities shed light on failures of national security decision-making at the highest levels.

Colombia's Case, Chávez, and Ecuador

Colombia has been assailed for decades by the FARC, who are on the defensive as the result of a vigorous commitment by the government and armed forces. Since the administration of Andrés Pastrana in 1998, Colombia has invested heavily in eliminating the twin scourges of terrorism and narcotics, achieving great success in reestablishing security. The public security forces (military and police) were expanded significantly in size, operational capability, and professionalism. By 2007 Colombia had greater security over the national territory, thanks to implementing the plan called Democratic Security and Defense Policy. Some 30,000 illegal paramilitary forces accepted demilitarization and demobilization. Approximately 10,800 FARC combatants remained in the organization, down from 16,800 in 2002. Security improvements were impressive: 80 percent reductions in kidnappings, 40 percent in homicides, terrorist attacks declined from 1645 in 2002 to 349 in 2007; the murder rate was the lowest in 20 years, and the area of coca cultivation reduced from 163,289 hectares in 2000 to 77,870 in 2006. Moreover, 2.3 million Colombians rose out of poverty. With this momentum of strategic and operational success, the attack on the Reyes camp was immensely popular in Colombia, and would soon be followed by the elimination of other FARC leaders.

The support of the international community in fighting terrorism is mandated by the United Nations and makes superb sense in Latin America. The FARC are terrorists to the United States, the European Union, and Colombia, but neither the OAS nor most Latin American countries have declared them so. The ambivalence is demonstrated strikingly by the posture of Hugo Chávez, who has imperial ambitions fed by petrodollars at 130 dollars per barrel in mid 2008. Chávez had campaigned internationally to have the FARC recognized as "belligerents." Captured Reyes computer files show that Chávez may have offered to send up to 300 million dollars to the FARC, coordinated diplomatic moves with them, provided guns and ammunition, as well as sanctuary within Venezuela.21 Colombian Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos asserted: "What they (the computer files) show is that the level of cooperation was much more than we had earlier estimated, we knew there was a level of cooperation, but not as intense, not as close and not as effective as we're now seeing."22 Moreover, administrative shabbiness and corruption last year allowed some 270 tons of cocaine to pass through Venezuela bound for the United States and Europe. In reaction to the Colombian strike, Chávez ordered 10 battalions and tanks to the Colombian border. Few of the units made it because of the deplorable condition of Venezuela's military. Uribe coolly ordered no military response, instead he threatened to haul Chávez to the International Criminal Court for aiding terrorism.

The western part of the 590 kilometer Ecuador-Colombia border is economically dynamic. The heavily forested eastern end of Ecuador has never been controlled, allowing drug traffickers, criminals, and contrabandists to move freely in crossing the San Miguel and Putumayo rivers. It is classical ungoverned space where criminals exploit the lack of state presence and security.23 The narcotics economy across the river in Colombia provided opportunities for Ecuadorean peasants to make money and easy FARC infiltration of the border populations. The International Crisis Group reported in March 2008 that Ecuador is a transit and storage point for Colombian and Peruvian drugs, for the passage of precursor chemicals, and a money-laundering platform because of the dollarized economy.24

In 2005 the Ecuadorean armed forces found some 25 illegal border crossing points. Ecuadoreans claim that the same 25 illegal crossings should have been known to Colombian authorities. The adjacent Colombian departments of Nariño and Putumayo saw a veritable explosion of coca plantings since the 1990s, increasing the competition between the FARC and paramilitary forces.

Given these considerations, Ecuador's unpreparedness for the incident of March 1 was surprising. The long-term commitment of Colombian governments to eliminate narcotics and terrorists and given the repeated FARC intrusions, incidents of hot pursuit by the Colombian armed forces, the number of FARC camps destroyed within Ecuador, the level of diplomatic interaction with the United States on Ecuador's regional security, and the intense political-diplomatic-military learning issuing from the 1995 war with Peru, should have prepared Ecuador's statesmen to manage the eventuality of a serious crisis.

Perspectives from Ecuador

Ecuador's dynamic and loquacious president, Rafael Correa, is trying to right the ship of a very weak state, a dysfunctional democracy, and sick economy.25 He came to office with a strong mandate in the throes of a deep national crisis which saw eight presidents in the previous 10 years. Armed with a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Illinois, a career in university teaching, a tour as Minister of Economics, and imbued with the concept of a social market economy (as opposed to the neo-liberal market economy), he claims to be launching a peaceful "citizen's revolution," as he promotes constitutional reform, and some nebulous "socialism of the 21st century." The country faces staggering challenges of social exclusion: 56 percent of the people and 80 percent of the Indians live in poverty.26

Ecuador's former Defense Minister, retired army General Oswaldo Jarrín, eloquently described Ecuador's internal difficulties in 2004: "High levels of poverty, marginalization, and social exclusion are factors. . .feed social pressure to obtain more attention to services, opportunities for work and quality of life, and (create) social frustration which delegitimate already weak institutions and accentuate ungovernability, instability and violence."27

Responding angrily to the March 1 attack, Correa accused Uribe of lying, broke diplomatic relations, and fulminated against the United States and the international media for its alleged organized campaign against Ecuador. Uribe upheld Colombia's right to self-defense. The northern border had become increasingly hot with incursions by criminal elements from Colombia. Oswaldo Jarrín reports than an estimated 70 percent of the population of Sucumbíos province conducts commerce with the FARC. To combat the emerging threat the Ecuadorean government implemented border development programs that would provide alternative economic incentives to the local people.

In March 2000, Ecuador's COSENA analyzed the emerging situation and Plan Colombia and decided to employ preventive diplomacy, "instead of the neorealist confrontational logic, which focuses on solving the problem with force, a control of the situation based on the strategy of influence and the logic of cooperation, within international law and respect for international agreements of which Ecuador is a part." This posture would guide Ecuadorean foreign policy and defense strategy. For its part, the United States saw Ecuador as an invaluable ally in the counternarcotics crusade, and a partner with Colombia. As will be seen later, American law prevented Washington from providing essential security assistance at a critical moment in Ecuador's developing weakness.

Referring to the relationship between the two countries, Colombia's leading strategic analyst, Alfredo Rangel Suárez, calls it a "dialogue of the deaf," especially for the last 3 years. Rangel's criticism does not speak well for the academic communities and decisional elites in each country. Eduardo Posada Carbó, one of Colombia's leading historians, admonishes: "We need to know Ecuador better, a task that should be better handled by our universities, think tanks, and the press."

Ecuador has taken the principled position that Colombia's conflict is to be solved by Colombians, that the FARC are irregular forces rather than terrorists. The international law distinction is, argues Ecuador, that to call them terrorists would be intervention in the internal affairs of Colombia and risk reprisal by the FARC.

Ecuador's position progressively hardened as its internal troubles became more acute. It seems that the Ecuadorean government has magnified its weakness (it ranked as the eighth most corrupt country in 2007). For example, Quito said even before Correa was elected, that the agreement allowing the United States to use a small section of Eloy Alfaro air base at Manta for counternarcotics reconnaissance flights (which helped intercept nearly 208 tons of cocaine in 2007) would not be renewed in 2009. Ecuador's foreign policy has held the strategically innocent view that the U.S. supported Plan Colombia threatens the security of Ecuador. Correa made a statement on March 15 that defied comprehension: ". . . Ecuadoreans shouldn't be surprised that there is a plan to destabilize the government and establish a puppet (titere) government which would lend itself to involve the country in the Colombian war and be an associate and an accomplice of the government of Uribe."

Plan Colombia is designed to promote security, economic development, and justice--achievements which would benefit Ecuador. These are symmetrical with the goals of Plan Ecuador, which is designed to improve security on the northern border. In sum, Ecuador's unwillingness to publicly recognize the threat to the Colombian state and society is perceived in Bogotá as sympathy for the FARC. At the same time, Colombia does not recognize, as the influential Alfredo Rangel Suárez admonishes, that Ecuador has made an immense effort to secure its border far beyond what Colombia has done, and this needs recognition on the part of both the United States and Colombia.

Appearing to weaken Ecuador's pristine defense about the March 1 incident was information found in Reyes's computer: Ecuador's Minister Coordinator of Internal and External Security was negotiating with Reyes. Allegedly, the meeting took place in Venezuela to negotiate the release of hostages, such as the notable Colombian-French citizen, former senator, and candidate for president, Ingrid Betancourt, who would be liberated in a daring rescue in early July. Additional information issuing in May from the Reyes computer files indicated that the FARC had sent $100,000 to the presidential campaign of Correa, which the latter vehemently denied.

Ecuador has asked the United States to support Plan Ecuador, and requested and got an extension of trade preferences for its products to enter the United States so that farmers do not plant coca. The United States Agency for International Development has been supporting with funds Ecuador's job creation and agricultural programs on the northern border. The United States is also working with the Ecuadorean National Police to strengthen drug law enforcement on the northern border, and to control cargo transiting Ecuador's sea and airports. Similarly, U.S. support goes to the military to provide security on the northern border and to improve communication and cooperation with the police. The logic of the Ecuadorean position seems confounding. A weak country with extensive trade with friendly Colombia cannot have it both ways, seek the support of the United States, appear to loosen its commitment to fight the narcotics traffic by telling the United States to leave Eloy Alfaro, and assume a position of virtual neutrality without strengthening its border security and military capabilities to deter "irregular forces" from using its territory to attack its neighbor. American officials state that access to Eloy Alfaro is a convenience, not a necessity, hard to replace to be sure, but the real issue will be Ecuador's commitment to fight the narcotics traffic beyond 2009. Ecuadorean officials have reassured that their country will cooperate.

The contradiction of neutrality is articulated by one of Ecuador's finest scholars, Simón Pachano:

The other task, and the most important, is the country's definition of its position on the Colombian conflict. The recent episodes indicate a strictly reactive character, which expresses the absence of a long range strategy. For many years we have taken refuge in neutrality, without understanding that it is an absurdity in terms of principles and the source of practical problems. All of us who at some moment have supported (neutrality) must recognize the error, for the simple fact that a State (sic) cannot be impartial in the face of an attack by an irregular group against another State which it recognizes as legitimate.

While not in the same geopolitical league, Switzerland and Sweden combine principle and power by maintaining robust military capabilities to defend their neutrality. To be sure, the Correa government attempted to respond to the vulnerability of the northern border. Its Plan Ecuador is intended to improve border security by promoting social and economic development.

Ecuador has done much with limited resources. Foreign Minister María Isabel Salvador and Minister of Government Fernando Bustamante declared at Washington's Inter-American Dialogue on March 18 that Ecuador has an impressive record against narcotics and the FARC, and that, moreover, Ecuador has welcomed some 300,000 Colombian refugees, and in the past asked Colombia to take responsibility for the refugees. Ecuador has dismantled 170 FARC camps, destroyed cocaine labs and coca plantings, and supports the OAS and other international efforts to eliminate narcotics. Foreign Minister Salvador noted that Ecuador places 11 percent of its military and police (11,000) on the border with Colombia, while Colombia a mere 2 percent%. In 2006, Ecuador seized 38 metric tons of cocaine, arrested 3.327for drug trafficking, and destroyed 114,000 coca plants. In addition, cooperation for counternarcotics, smuggling, and illegal immigration is very good among the Coast Guards of Colombia, Ecuador, and the United States.

The Ecuadorean people are well aware of the price of insecure borders, having ceded considerable territory to Peru and Colombia in the last 2 centuries. In 1941 Ecuador's best troops were kept in Quito while Peruvian troops occupied the southern provinces. Ecuador fought an expensive war in 1995 that led to the final demarcation of the boundary with Peru. Ecuador feels victimized at a time of national weakness by the insensitivity of Colombia's power and by the United States which supports it.

Good Intentions vs. Principled Pragmatism

The attack on Angostura and the response of the parties directly and indirectly involved has enormous significance for peace, security, and development in Latin America and for the United States. States must do more to secure their borders. There ought to be greater awareness about the insidious threat of terrorism and narcotics and their ability to exploit societal and international vulnerabilities, the seams between international law, sovereignty, official corruption, ungoverned space, and weak state capacity.

At some point, the conspiratorial and bullying Chávez imperio will end because of corruption, administrative incompetence, and the democratic yearnings of the Venezuelan people. Venezuela can then resume its role as constructive member of the international community. Colombia seems to be on its way to peace and security, but needs continued support from its neighbors. In the meantime, a blind anti-American and anti-democratic populist rage, fed by dysfunctional state systems, massive poverty, and social exclusion, is alive across a number of countries, complicating the defense agenda of governments, forcing counterproductive compromises between internal and external domains. Populist governments tend to be idealists on national defense, relying on diplomacy and "development" to solve conflict, often running away from the deterrent potential of the military instrument, while making deals with the devil and distancing themselves from the United States. Such governments tend to focus the military on internal development programs rather than external defense, precisely Correa's pattern. An astute analyst of contemporary civil-military relations in Latin America adds:

Without an external threat to focus on, civilian politicians in a democracy typically assign defense issues a low priority in favor of economic and political ones that will bring tangible electoral returns. Also, militaries with histories of political autonomy and intervention are reluctant to share defense information with civilian politicians, let alone educate them about these issues, for fear of generating alternative sources of power that could threaten their corporate interests.

Correa's populist definition of the national defense problem at the border can be gleaned from an interview with Bogotá's Semana magazine of April 20, 2008:

Colombia does not take care of its southern border, it's a deliberate strategy to involve us in Plan Colombia. A great part of the population, especially in the Amazon, supports the FARC because the Colombian and the Ecuadorean state is not there and those who provide work to the people (drugs, etc.) are the FARC. How do you stop it? Uribe thinks it's by bombing. Our strategy is human development in the region.

The statement once again misinterpreted Plan Colombia and overlooked the fact that the FARC forces peasants into the illegal drugs economy. Moreover, a realistic view would have seen that the Colombia-Ecuador distemper of March 2008 has been brewing for years, because Colombia's neighbors have not secured their borders, and because the FARC would seek refuge in Ecuador and Venezuela if pressure increased in Colombia, and that "human development" is impossible without security. The contrasting views on security underscore that the eloquent declarations of the triumph of peace and diplomacy at the OAS and at the Group of Rio Summit and the handshakes between Uribe, Correa, and Chávez are very much part of Latin American strategic culture, but they leave unfinished the tasks of border security and dealing with the insidious penetration of terrorism, drugs, dirty money, contraband, and international organized crime. The Latin American states need to find common ground between fundamentally different views on what constitutes terrorism versus legitimate political activity. As Uribe stated at the Group of Rio Summit:

It surprises me that they speak of the violation of the sovereign territory of Ecuador, but not of the violation of the sovereignty of the people of Colombia.To speak of territorial sovereignty you have to speak of the other sovereignty, which is more important than the territorial, which is the right of a people not to be attacked.

Uribe was enunciating a new concept of sovereignty, a concept that has not taken root in the ministries and the intelligentsia of Latin America. Terrorism cannot be liberation or irregular warfare to one legitimate democratic government and crime to another. Governments should defend coherent principles in foreign and defense policies, because they all benefit from international order. They must take seriously the combustible combination of drugs, terrorists, at times supported by extreme leftist social protest groups masquerading as nationalists, human rights movements, and legitimate democratic forces while threatening fundamental security and democracy.

Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, Peru, Brazil, Bolivia, and Venezuela should create effective mechanisms for dealing with border security, international crime, and terrorism. A potentially useful initiative is Brazil's proposal for a South American Defense Council. Defense Minister Nelson Jobim stated in the aftermath of the crisis that its purpose would be to strengthen military cooperation and to prevent situations like the Colombian-Ecuador incident. Brazil, with some 15,000 kilometers of practically undefended borders with 10 countries, has a lot at stake. Though various countries signed up for the Defense Council at the May 2008 meeting of the presidents of South America in Brasilia, a number of knotty issues must be resolved. What are the threats that would agglutinate the Defense Council? Unless a majority of members recognize terrorism and drug trafficking as the main threats, what other threats would cause common action? Furthermore, are the members willing to invest in organizing and integrating forces, managing intelligence, training, equipment, and in establishing a political-military command and control system among governments who, in many cases, do not trust each other, especially for ideological reasons? Unless these matters are effectively dealt with, the South American Defense Council might become what one Latin American senior officer termed an opportunity for "diplomatic tourism."

The regional community has an effective mechanism retrievable from its historical memory: the Military Observer Mission Ecuador/Peru (MOMEP. MOMEP is one of the most successful peacekeeping efforts ever undertaken. Constituted by Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and the United States, it supervised the separation of forces and demilitarization of the zone of conflict after the 1995 war between Ecuador and Peru, and helped establish the conditions for the Peace of Brasilia of 1998, thereby ending a centuries-old conflict. A Brazilian general commanded MOMEP. A similar arrangement should be possible for the Colombian-Ecuador border, under OAS auspices and perhaps rotating command among Latin American countries, to deal with irregular forces.

The United States: The Price of Noble Intentions

For its part, the United States needs to demonstrate greater sensitivity and respond effectively to the legitimate security needs of regional partners who face a complex blend of threats at the lower end of the conflict spectrum. The United States is the anchor of international order and of regional security architecture that includes Colombia and Ecuador, but American law and competing global priorities prevented Ecuador from receiving military assistance, except for counternarcotics purposes. Accordingly, Ecuador's current defense vulnerabilities can be partly attributed to the U.S. failure to provide much needed assistance in the form of logistics. In 2006 Ecuador offered to purchase two C130 transport aircraft, boats, troop transports, and equipment for telephone interception from the United States, but was turned down. An editorial in Diario Expreso on July 26, 2006, astutely stated that Ecuador "should not ask for but demand" such support because it would benefit Ecuador, Colombia, and the United States. The equipment would have helped Ecuador respond more quickly to FARC incursions. Later in January 2007, Ecuador would lose two of its functioning helicopters when they collided, killing Defense Minister Guadalupe Larriva, her daughter, and five crew members. On April 17, 2008, Correa, saying that previous governments had "satanized" purchasing equipment for the military, announced the purchase of 24 Super Tucanos and radar to help secure the northern border. On May 28, the Commander of the army announced that the government would allocate 57 million dollars over 3 years to improve capabilities to patrol the border.

The American contribution to Ecuador's weakness originates from having to make tough choices about how to apportion its support in the face of competing regional and global priorities. There were also legal impediments from two directions: (1) The American Service Members Protection Act (ASPA) of 2002, followed by the Nethercutt amendment of 2004 ; and (2) The Rome Treaty giving the International Criminal Court, which came into being after the Nuremberg and Tokyo tribunals after World War II and received new life after the atrocities in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, jurisdiction over persons committing war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.

ASPA excluded foreign military personnel from receiving U.S. military assistance unless the affected country signed a bilateral agreement with the United States, permitted under Article 98 of the Rome Treaty, which would exempt American military personnel from the jurisdiction of the foreign country's court system. Nethercutt went further, prohibiting countries that ratified the Rome Treaty and had not signed an Article 98 agreement from receiving Economic Support Funds, money that went to counterterrorism, peace programs, and anti-drug trafficking. The weak government in Ecuador, feeling pressure from the left and having second thoughts on the rent-free U.S. access agreement to Eloy Alfaro, refused to sign the bilateral agreement, thereby triggering U.S. sanctions. In October 2006, President George W. Bush signed a waiver that excluded 14 countries, 11 in Latin America, including Brazil and Ecuador, from the provisions of Article 98. The Defense Authorization Bill of 2007 rescinded the provisions of ASPA. But damage favorable to international disorder had been done. Washington's tied hands not only weakened American influence, it weakened the perilous condition of the Ecuadorean state and its ability to deal with the complex security problems of the 21st century.

The unintended consequences of virtuous intentions were a blow against American interests in Latin America at a notably sensitive period when populist governments of the left needed a foreign antagonist to solidify their domestic political base, for example: the emerging chaotic politics that Correa inherited. The perception that American military personnel have immunity from prosecution for crimes against human rights is difficult to rebut in such circumstances (especially at a time that violations by military personnel at Abu Ghraib and the symbolism of Guantanamo damaged America's moral standing), even if a state has a status of forces agreement with the United States. Colombia, which had such agreement with the United States dating back to the 1960s, saw the advantage of a new Article 98 based bilateral arrangement and signed one, despite significant political opposition within Colombia.

Such legal impediments hardly make sense when the United States needs Ecuador as a front line state in the battle against narcotics and terrorism. There is a contradiction: the United States needs the FOL at Eloy Alfaro for counternarcotics reconnaissance flights to complement a contribution from Ecuador across the spectrum of counternarcotics and counterterrorism, but is constrained to meet Ecuador's legitimate defense needs. Therefore, to some degree, American reticence in providing military assistance contributed to the FARC's ease in establishing camps in Ecuador. At that critical juncture, the Ecuadorean army lacked logistical and communications capabilities, having only one helicopter to transport troops to the border. Yet, the United States, for good reasons that matured into a close alliance, had to support Colombia in combating terrorism and narcotics. The asymmetry in power that ensued over time between Colombia and Ecuador did not help American credibility in Quito, given that government's stated opposition to Plan Colombia, and especially as the coalition of support for Colombia and the United States weakened under the onslaught of populism, an uninformed and idealistic antimilitarism within Ecuadorean academic and intellectual circles, chavismo, self-inflicted wounds by U.S. foreign policy, and the insensitivity in Bogotá to Ecuador's internal dysfunctions. Washington is often unaware of the immense power the United States wields, even if our intentions are noble, especially when such power affects small countries such as Ecuador, where programs of security assistance matter greatly. A good dose of principled pragmatism and smart power is in order.

In the short term, the United States can be an indirect catalyst for confidence-building between Colombia and Ecuador. Given the asymmetries in power and Ecuador's sense of victimization, Colombia will have to take the initiative with Ecuador. Both the United States and Colombia can do more to address Ecuador's concerns. The countries of the region must develop a clearer understanding that intrastate conflict, provoked by illegal actors, can escalate to interstate conflict. Countries must be alert with preventive diplomacy and render more effective the existing international agreements, so that international tensions do not become a platform which benefits illegal transnational groups.

A final reflection takes us beyond the Amazon. The events of March 1, 2008, signify that wars without borders are different from the wars of the past. The wars fought by terrorists and irregular forces avoid battles. They target civilians and control territory by fear, hate, corruption, and by population displacement. They are wars without geographic, legal, and moral constraints. The new wars pit the state against criminals, but the state must be the authoritative defender of standards of legality and human decency. Clausewitz was right that war is the continuation of politics (or policy) by other means. However, the politics have changed while the means, particularly the analytical and institutional capacities of governments, have not caught up to that change. Unfortunately, ungoverned space is matched by ungoverned space in the human intellect and in the ministries of government.


1. Paul W. Drake and Eric Hershberg, eds., State and Society in Conflict: Comparative Perspectives on Andean Crises, Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2006.

2. The Super Tucanos later became a matter of dispute between Ecuador and Colombia. The Ecuadorean government would sustain that the Super Tucanos could not fire precision guided bombs because they were not configured to do so, that thus a third country (implying the United States) was involved. American officials denied involvement. The maker, EMBRAER, says that the aircraft can be armed with air to ground bombs. The bombs were American made.

3. Details on the aircraft are found in Richard Lugar, "Playing With Fire: Colombia, Ecuador, and Venezuela," Report to the Members of the Committee on Foreign Relations, United States Senate, April 28, 2008, p. 26.

4. Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega also blasted away at Colombia. Potential reasons: to support oil bearing Chávez and to gain leverage against Colombia over jurisdiction to Caribbean islands and maritime space.

5. Sibylla Brodzinsky, "Rebel camp remains reflect fierce attack,", March 11, 2008,

6. Sergio Gómez Maseri, "OEA logró un consenso para superar la crisis diplomática entre Colombia y Ecuador"), El Tiempo, March 18, 2008,

7. Preemptive vs. preventive military measures are often subjective judgments about the immanence of the threat, while precautionary measures are long term. Both require excellent intelligence. A preemptive attack is offensive in nature and designed to neutralize an immanent threat, while the preventive is defensive, allowing more time to take measures. These distinctions are developed by Colin S. Gray, "The Implications of Preemptive and Preventive War Doctrines: A Reconsideration," Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, July 2007.

8. International Crisis Group, "Colombia's Borders: The Weak Link in Uribe's Security Policy," Latin America Report No. 9, September 23, 2004.

9. Juan Forero, "Colombia's Rebels Face Possibility of Implosion," Washington Post, March 22, 2008, p. A22,

10. "Tirofijo está muerto"),Semana, May 24, 2008,

11. Unidad Investigativa, El Tiempo.Com, March 29, 2008,

12. There exists a mechanism for military cooperation on border security between Ecuador and Colombia: COMBIFRON. However, the two militaries do not conduct coordinated or combined military operations, though the two ministers of defense Camilo Ospina Bernal (Colombia) and General (ret) Oswaldo Jarrín (Ecuador),agreed in January 2006 "on the importance and necessity to cooperate with all the security organs to implement new and better controls on the entry of chemical precursors, arms, munitions and explosives into the respective countries." See: "Declaración Conjunta de los Ministros de Defensa de Colombia y Ecuador", Bogotá, January 12, 2006,

13. "Relación Ecuador-Colombia: Esmeraldas: pueblos fronterizos, tierra de nadie", Hoy, April 5, 2008,

14. "FFAA activan sistema de defensa antiaéreo: El gabinete de Palacio se reunio para analizar la incursión de Colombia . . . .," Hoy, February 1, 2006.

15. "Acosta pide información veraz de las FF. AA.,", March 21, 2008,

16. Arturo Torres, "Sabíamos que Reyes pasaba a Ecuador,", March 31, 2008,

17. Simón Pachano, "Pluma y Pistola," El Universo, April 14, 2008,

18. Colin S. Gray, "The Implications of Preemptive and Preventive War Doctrines," p. 18.

19. Alfredo Rangel Suárez, "Colombia y Ecuador: dos visiones de seguridad, una frontera," Fundación Seguridad y Democracia, www.seguridadydemocracia.or, p. 16.

20. For the great glysophate debate of 2007, see Gabriel Marcella, "American Grand Strategy for Latin America in the Age of Resentment," Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, September 2007, pp. 29-34. The Ecuadorean charge contradicts the results of research conducted by a team of Canadian, Spanish, English, and Brazilian scientists. See Keith R. Solomon, Arturo Anadón, Antonio Luiz Cerdeira, John Marshall, and Luz-Helena Sanín, Environmental and Human Health Assessment of the Aerial Spray Program for Coca and Poppy Control in Colombia, report prepared for the Inter-American Drug Control Commission (CICAD) section of the Organization of American States, Washington, DC, March 25, 2003, pp.11-12. It states:

The risk assessment concluded that glyphosate . . . as used in the eradication program in Colombia did not represent a significant risk to human health . . . Considering the effects of the entire cycle of coca and poppy production and eradication, clear-cutting and burning, and displacement of the natural flora and fauna were identified as the greatest environmental risks and are considerably more important than those from the use of glyphosate.

Ecuador rejected the CICAD report and produced its own, which rendered a contrary judgment. Glyphosate is used in both Colombia and Ecuador, and worldwide, as an herbicide. CICAD reported that 10-14 percent of the total amount of glyphosate used in Colombia is employed in the eradication of coca plants.

21. Juan Forero, "Venezuela Offered Aid to Colombian Rebels,", May 15, 200,; "Los E-mails secretos,", May 18, 2008,

22. Forero, "Venezuela Offered Aid," p. 2.

23. For an analysis of the strategic relevance of ungoverned space, see Angel Rabassa et al., Ungoverned Territories: Understanding and Reducing Terrorism Risks, Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2007.

24. International Crisis Group, "Latin American Drugs 1: Losing the Fight," Crisis Group Latin American Report No. 25, March 14, 2008, p. 17.

25. Correa once declared President Bush "dumb" and "calling him the devil offends the devil." Ecuador's political crisis is well described by Simón Pachano, "Ecuador: The Provincialization of Representation," in Scott Mainwaring, Ana María Bejarano, Eduardo Pizarro Leongómez, eds., The Crisis of Democratic Representation in the Andes, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006, pp. 100-131. See also Thomas C. Bruneau, "Ecuador: The Continuing Challenge of Democratic Consolidation and Civil-Military Relations," Strategic Insights, February 2006; Allen Gerlach, Indians, Oil, And Politics: A Recent History of Ecuador, Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 2003. The most complete analysis of Ecuador's crisis and the Correa political program is International Crisis Group, "Ecuador: Overcoming Instability?" Latin America Report Number 22, Brussels, August 7, 2007.

26. Correa's economic thinking can be found in his book, La vulnerabilidad de la economía ecuatoriana: hacia una major política económica para la generación de empleo, reducción de pobreza y desigualdad, Quito, Programa de la Naciones Unidas Para el Desarrollo, 2004.

27. Oswaldo Jarrín, "La Junta de Seguridad Ciudadana: El Caso Sucumbíos," Nueva Sociedad, No. 191, May-June 2004, p. 147.


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