Is the US Poised to Regain Control of Latin America with Regional Proxy Wars Through Colombia?

The Summits of the Americas began in 1994 as forums to promote free trade.  In 2009 the Summit’s focus shifted to demands for the inclusion of Cuba in regional political bodies and the end of the U.S. economic embargo, a debate which continued in this month’s Sixth Summit in Cartagena.

But a new topic made its way into the news from the April 14 and 15 Summit in Cartagena, the call to discuss ‘decriminalization’ of drugs.  Strangely, the call was launched by precisely the presidents which have most embraced militarization under the guise of the drug war.  Though spearheaded by Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina, reportedly a former CIA asset and former general accused of carrying out crimes against humanity, Perez Molina claims he thought of the proposal together with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos.

Meanwhile, behind the scenes on April 15, Presidents Obama and Santos signed the U.S. – Colombia Action Plan for Regional Security Cooperation, an agreement for security cooperation throughout the hemisphere and in West Africa, whose stated objective is to respond to increased insecurity generated by organized crime.

The call for debate on such an important and sensitive topic by Washington’s military allies, while the U.S. launches with them a new regional ‘security’ project is confusing.  But it also occurs as the U.S. attempts to challenge a set of popular South American leaders intent on forging an independent Latin America.

U.S. dominance is a sensitive subject in Latin America, and there is very little political capital to be gained from pandering to Washington.  To the contrary, those that challenge the U.S. have become extremely popular, which leads to the suspicion that the call from the drug warriors for a debate on “decriminalization” could be a red herring to garner popularity for a new set of U.S. friendly Latin American presidents.

Colombian Host Helps US Retake Center Stage at the Summit

As South American leaders focus on building up a Latin American economic and political block with independence from its northern, English speaking neighbors, the Summits have been the sites of diplomatic tensions.

In 2009, during the last Summit in Trinidad and Tobago, US press reports focused on Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega’s “rant” against U.S. imperialism and reported on Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s gift to Obama of the book “The Open Veins of Latin America” as an affront.

Whatever deference to Obama may have been missing in Trinidad and Tobago was more than made up for in Colombia where it was reported that in the ceremonial dinner Obama sat on a raised platform well above the other presidents, who could not be served until Obama arrived and was seated, well over an hour after everyone else.

Miami, the unofficial business capital of Latin America and nerve center of the political network that advance the interests of U.S. based corporations in Latin America was also given the opportunity to again flex its muscles in the context of a Summit in a Summit of corporate CEO’s convoked by the Colombian president of the Inter American Development Bank, Luis Alberto Moreno.

Immersed in his battle with cancer, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez did not attend.  In the 2005 Summit Chavez pronounced the original summit agenda, the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), dead and buried, as Venezuela launched an alternative, the Bolivarian Alliance for Latin America (ALBA).

The only point of North- South tension reported from the Summit was the panel discussion turned debate, facilitated by co-panelist President Santos,  between Obama and Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff, in which Vanity Fair reports that Rousseff referred to the ‘asymmetric relationship’ between the U.S. and Latin America a dozen times.

April 15, Obama and Santos Announce the U.S. Colombia Action Plan for Regional Security

The diplomatic role Colombia played in restoring the U.S.  President’s asymmetric relationship in the Summit was backed up by the signing of a political-military agreement aimed at strengthening the U.S.’s military presence in the region.  President Santos, who was Minister of Defense under Alvaro Uribe, and President Obama “on the margins” of the Summit on April 15th signed an agreement to establish the U.S. Colombia Action Plan for Regional Security.

The White House described the agreement as building on, ie. expanding U.S. Colombian  security operations from Central America to the whole hemisphere and even Africa.  The White House referred to the ‘success,’ without describing specific benchmarks to demonstrate ‘success’,  of Operation Martillo, launched last year, partnering the U.S. Joint Interagency Task Force- South (JIATF-S) and the Colombian Navy and Air Forces in Central America.

JIATF-S, a unit under the U.S. military’s Southern Command (SouthCom), left Panama for Miami 19 years ago when the U.S. left the Canal Zone.  Last year JIATF-S came back to Panama providing “Operational Support” in a newly reopened U.S. military base which serves as the Center of Operations for the Central American System for Regional Integration’s Regional Security Strategy (SICA-COSR).

COSR will most likely be the regional center for the JIATF-S’s C4I border surveillance program, which creates technology canals of radars and other electronic surveillance equipment linked to Colombian and Mexican border control technology.

The White House also mentions that the Colombian National Police are providing assistance and training through the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) to all of Central America except Nicaragua, Central America’s only ALBA member since the 2009 military coup in Honduras.  In December 2011, Panamanian President Martinelli announced that the US and Colombia were partnering in creating a border control school for the region’s police and military in Panama.

CARSI is being implemented through SICA’s Regional Security Strategy, which is promoted by a ‘group of friends,’ spearheaded by the United States and the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) in Washington, DC, but which also includes, among others, Colombia, Chile, Brazil and Germany.  SICA- ESCA is expected to have an annual budget of over US$1 billion, provided by the Group of Friends, mostly in the form of 22 loans from the IADB.

From Central America to the Hemisphere:  Biden’s Lunch with Central American Presidents While General Fraser Explained SouthComs Agenda to Congress

In preparation for the 6th Summit of the Americas, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden traveled to Mexico and Central America on March 4, 5 and 6.  He began in Mexico where the State Department’s Merida Initiative partnered with President Felipe Calderon’s drug war in 2006, and has resulted in an estimated 50,000 deaths.

On Tuesday March 6, Biden lunched in Tegucigalpa with all the presidents of Central America mainly to discuss CARSI, the Central American version of the Merida Initiative.  The same day the Commander of the US Southern Command, General Fraser, presented his annual address to the Armed Services Committee in the House of Representatives, focusing strongly on Central America.

In the context of Biden’s visit, the US ambassador to Honduras, Lisa Kubiske, commented that the diminishing engagement of the US in the Middle East means that US Armed Forces can increase their commitments in Central America, a scenario that is already taking shape.

Fraser explained that the US agenda in the hemisphere is stability, and spoke extensively about Central American crime gangs as a threat to stability in the region, which he claimed require a military response and assistance from the State Department in training and funding police forces.  Another threat to stability he described were alleged protests and unrest in certain ALBA nations, while he expressed concern about overtures from the Iranian government to Venezuela.

He also asserted that “criminal activities extend into the Venezuelan government,” ironic given Biden’s presence in Honduras where deep implications of government officials and security forces in organized crime, including gangs, have been completely overlooked by the U.S.

The politically charged discourse behind the ‘drug war’ underscores the fact that since 2006 the U.S. has established a massive military presence from Mexico to Colombia, in what looks like a move to insure that the independent governments of South America don’t spread north, and now, apparently, the U.S. and Colombian security agenda is throughout the Hemisphere.

At the 5th Summit of the Americas, the Left Controlled Central America

In 2009 Biden also visited Central America to prepare for the Summit, but the cards were stacked very differently. Left leaning governments, many affiliated with former revolutionary movements, had taken control of Central America through elections.

Daniel Ortega, the leader of the Sandinista movement, was president of Nicaragua, firmly staked out in office with a large base of support and a political pact with the opposition.  Mauricio Funes of the FMLN political party, born from the revolutionary movement, had just been elected president of El Salvador.  Guatemala’s president, Alvaro Colom, who had undertaken his first presidential bid in 1999 as the candidate for another revolutionary movement turned political party, the URNG, brought some URNG associated political figures into his administration.

In Honduras, Manuel Zelaya had led his nation into joining ALBA, and consolidated an overwhelming base of support.   Panama was ruled by Martin Torrijos, son of the “leftist” de facto military leader Omar Torrijos (1968-1981) whose 1981 death in a plane crash is widely speculated to have been the work of the CIA.  A year before the 5th Summit of the Americas Torrijos had met with Raul Castro in Cuba to discuss signing an energy agreement.  Oscar Arias, then President of Costa Rica, though a firm US ally is a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and many consider him a moderate.

Central America Turns to the Right, with a Big Push from the North

Just three months after the 2009 Summit, Honduran President Manuel Zelaya was deposed in a coup broadly understood in Honduras to have been backed by the U.S. government. Guatemala’s Alvaro Colom was succeeded by Otto Perez Molina, a retired general and a firm US ally.  Mauricio Funes, an outsider in the FMLN political party, has made many concessions to US interests, particularly in relation to security matters recently sweeping all FLMN aligned appointees from top security positions and replacing them with former military.

Panama’s Torrijos was succeeded by the right wing Ricardo Martinelli, who comes from one of Panama’s oldest economic and political oligarch families, and in Costa Rica Laura Chinchilla is considered right wing and very pro US.  Daniel Ortega remains in office, though his 2011 reelection has been the focus of intense criticism from the State Department, former diplomats, and the media.

Political Opportunism: Drug Legalization Call from Guatemala’s Perez Molina

With three months in office, Perez Molina has leapt into the spotlight by promoting a debate around legalization of drugs, donning the hat of reformer as opposed to his previous fame as a former military intelligence chief implicated in war crimes like torture and genocide.   Even before Perez Molina assumed office, in December 2010, he surprised all by advancing a call for dialog about the possibility of “depenalization,” ie. legalization,  of drugs.

The strangeness of Perez Molina’s position stems from his wholehearted embrace of militarization in the framework of the war on drugs.  During the first two months of his presidency his new appointees on repeated occasions have criminalized social protest, stating that those who block highways are backed by organized crime and drug traffickers.

On February 14, 2012 Guatemala’s Vice Minister for Security, former colonel Julio Rivera Clavería, referred to the leaders of the Sasiguan, Cunen indigenous community, which opposes the construction of a hydroelectric dam on their lands by the Italian energy company ENEL, as drug traffickers.  On February 14 Sasiguan residents caught three police officers leaving the scene after the destruction of over 50 acres of crops, the latest in a series of actions harassing and intimidating the community.  The three were detained and taken to the community’s traditional indigenous leaders.    Rivera led a force of 600 soldiers to “rescue” three security guards, accusing community leaders of being drug traffickers.

Perez Molina has also enthusiastically promoted use of the Guatemalan military’s special forces unit, the Kaibiles, in anti-drug policing, while placing Kaibiles in the highest three command positions in the military. On April 6, 2011 Guatemalan Vice Minister of Security Mario Castaneda reported that current and former Kaibles were training members of the Zeta drug gang and participating in drug smuggling, while noting that a series of weapons robberies from military bases in Guatemala and Honduras had benefited Zetas.

The Mexico–Guatemala- Colombia Axis:  Creating Latin America’s “Independent” Block Favoring Northern Businesses Interests

With his forceful yet polished personality, Perez Molina is quickly projecting regional leadership advancing statements that appear to confront US policy, like that Guatemalan troops are capable of fighting the drug war and that he did not intend to ask for US troop support.  Strong words for a man who visited SouthCom together with his vice president and three highest ministerial appointees in November, even before taking office, to pave way for cooperation.  In 1994 he was reported by an investigative journalist to have been a CIA asset, and he has been extremely close to the US embassy as his frequent appearances in Wikileaks documents attest.

Perez Molina is an adept politician and there is a lot of political capital to be garnered from appearing to challenge the US in Latin America, especially on drug policy.  It is not lost on Latin Americans that the US is the main supplier of weapons to the region’s drug cartels, that it is US and Canadian consumption that drives the drug trade, and that most of the casualties in the US’s drug war are Latin Americans, and their democracies.

The first acting president in Latin America to clearly call for legalization was Colombian President Santos in November 2011, though in August 2011 Mexico’s President Felipe Calderon stated that if the US could not curb consumption it must implement ‘market based solutions’ to the importation of drugs to the States, solutions not involving illegal border crossings.

The Drug War Must End, But Is there a Hidden Agenda?

On February 23, 2009 the Wall Street Journal launched the current legalization debate, publishing a powerful op-ed by former presidents Fernando Cardoso, Cesar Gaviria and Ernesto Zedillo of Brazil, Colombia and Mexico respectively, asserting that “Prohibitionist policies based on eradication, interdiction and criminalization of consumption simply haven’t worked,” and calling for a review of US led drug war policies, noting that the “alarming power of the drug cartels is leading to a criminalization of politics and a politicization of crime. And the corruption of the judicial and political system is undermining the foundations of democracy in several Latin American countries.”

The US’s drug war in Latin America is criminal and must end.  But the call to ‘debate’ drug policy is being advanced by the same US aligned political figures that have most embraced the militarization of the region in the name of the drug war.

The US’s agenda in Latin America is regaining hegemony.  But US allies have been lacking political personalities capable of garnering strong support in their home countries.  Openness to dialog or even limited reform on drug policy, which appears to challenge Uncle Sam’s agenda, could go a long way in gaining popular support, generating an apparently ‘independent’ block of right leaning political figures to challenge the South American lineup, while continuing security operations to impose transnational business interests through repression and criminalization.

Annie Bird is co-director of Rights Action.