Thursday, October 13, 2011

D.C. Examines Drug Cartel-Terrorism Links

Testimony heard yesterday in two hearings within the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs was shadowed by Tuesday’s revealing of the alleged "Iran-Zetas" plot. One hearing, “The International Exploitation of Drug Wars and What We Can Do About It,” heard testimony from four interest parties, including the former Chief of Operations for the DEA, who cited the "Iran-Zetas" sting as reason to increase funding for the DEA’s confidential informant program. The DEA’s use of an informant, posing as a member of the Zetas cartel, is what allowed authorities to unravel the alleged Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi Arabia ambassador in the U.S.

A common thread throughout the hearings was the growing links between Middle Eastern terrorist cells with West African criminal groups, in the interests of the drug trade, and how their relationship could potentially deepen with the Latin America-based crime organizations. Analyst Douglas Farah argued that the relationship between terrorism and the drug trade are “morphing into something new:”
The ideological boundaries and operational constraints that kept many groups from working together during the Cold War have largely been eclipsed, and there is a consistent blurring or erasing of the lines that once separated organized crime (for profit enterprises) from terrorist (political/theological goals) groups. The reasons are multiple, and are magnified and empowered by what the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has accurately identified as a crucial element in the logistical structure of both groups: the emergence of a small group of “super fixers” -- those able to provide specific, unique services to multiple groups regardless of ideology, motivation or location.

Farah said that identifying and arresting these “super fixers” should guide the U.S. approach toward addressing the “criminal-terrorist” threat. In terms of policy recommendations, some analysts recommended investing more law enforcement resources in West Africa, others argued that the U.S. is losing focus on the threats growing in “backyard” territory: Central and South America. Farah’s testimony in particular described the relationship between Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia and Iran as especially dangerous to U.S. and global security interests.

Meanwhile, Vanda Felbab-Brown of the Brookings Institution emphasized the need of the U.S. to be strategic when prioritizing the most important criminal and terrorist threats. This would have little to do with geography, and more to do with identifying “those with the greatest links or potential links to international terrorist groups with global reach.” The question now is whether, in hindsight of the "Iran-Zetas" affair, U.S. policy makers will begin considering Mexican groups as more disruptive and dangerous to global and U.S. security than they arguably are. Yesterday's testimony certainly implied that there are parties willing to make this case.


News Briefs
  • Analysis on the alleged Iranian-Mexico plot from the Miami Herald, InSight Crime, Plato O Plomo and Bloggings by Boz emphasize the unlikeliness that Mexican cartels should be interested in carrying out such an attack on U.S. soil, and ask whether this means the U.S. will begin exaggerating the threat of collaboration between Mexican criminal groups and Middle Eastern terrorist cells. The essential argument is that Mexican cartels would not be willing to court U.S. wrath by engaging in such terrorist strikes, which would increase their visibility and only end up hurting their drug sales to the U.S.
  • The U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement (FTA) was approved by Congress yesterday, with 262 favorable votes in the House of Representatives, and 66 votes in favor in the Senate. The Miami Herald examines what the repercussions of the agreement hold for Colombia’s farmers, while the LA Times focuses on what the bipartisan passage of the treaty means for D.C. politics, a similar angle taken by Time. For helpful context, Dinero has a timeline tracking the bill’s long and difficult journey through U.S. Congress, as well as an extensive briefing on what the FTA actually implies for the Colombian economy. For coverage more focused on what the FTA’s passage means for Colombia, La Silla Vacia lists three reasons why President Santos was able to achieve what President Alvaro Uribe could not, and three reasons why the FTA may return to haunt him politically.
  • Colombia media is stepping up their coverage of neo-paramilitary violence and displacement, in anticipation of the October 30 municipal elections. La Silla Vacia reports from the Pacific coast departments, whileVerdad Abierta details the difficult return of displaced families to a former hub of paramilitarism, the Western Antioquia region.
  • Henrique Capriles, current governor of Miranda state and pegged as a strong potential rival to President Hugo Chavez, has officially launched his presidential campaign in Venezuela. The campaign is likely to present Capriles as preferring a soft-spoken style, conciliatory style; the governor is also likely to continue courting comparisons former Brazilian President “Lula,” in order to present himself as a significant change from the current Venezuelan head of state.
  • After Haiti’s new president had a sit-down with ex-dictator “Baby Doc” on Wednesday, allegedly in the name of “political reconciliation,” the AP examines the implications of these links between the new and old regimes.
  • Colombian students protested yesterday against proposed reforms to the university system, expressing many of the same concerns previously seen in Chile. Colombia Reports takes note of the demonstrations which took place in the country’s three major cities; Bogota saw the largest turnout with 30,000 protesters, as well as a few reported incidents of violence.
  • A group of human right activists and journalists will reportedly try to press charges against Mexican President Felipe Calderon in the International Criminal Court. The effort appears to be a symbolic one, meant to draw attention to government abuse brought about by Calderon’s militarized, anti-crime strategy, the activists said.
  • The Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas highlights a report released in late September on the persecution of the Ecuadorean press after last year’s political crisis, in which President Rafael Correa clashed violently with police protesters. Since the events of September 30, 2010, there have been 211 “aggressions” against journalists, the report says. The study was released by Fundamedios, an NGO that focuses on press freedom in the Andean region.
  • Finally, Reuters uses the story of Brazil’s biggest-ever bank heist to report on the country’s growing private security sector.