The Colombian army’s killing of Alfonso Cano, head of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), will not eliminate that country’s largest guerrilla group anytime soon. But it does partly illustrate why international terrorism has not established a major presence in Latin America. Local security forces, bolstered by generous American assistance, have made the region a difficult place for foreign terrorists to set up operational cells – and other conditions also help to make Latin America less vulnerable.
One reason why the FARC has survived repeated blows to its leadership is the support that it receives from various groups, perhaps including government officials, in neighboring Ecuador and Venezuela. Fortunately, this backing appears to have declined in the last year or so, following improvement in Colombia’s relations with these countries.
Another factor contributing to the FARC’s survival has been its transformation over the years from a revolutionary organization into a narco-terrorist group that uses violence to support its criminal operations. Many former terrorist and insurgent groups in the region have undergone similar transformations over the last two decades.
These groups, some with transnational reach, mostly engage in narcotics trafficking, arms smuggling, and kidnapping. At worst, they sometimes employ terrorist tactics (commonly defined as violence that deliberately targets civilians). In Colombia, the FARC and the National Liberation Army (ELN) finance their operations through drug trafficking, kidnapping, and extortion. These groups might kill civilians, but their main targets are the police and security personnel who threaten their activities.
Latin America is distinctive in the recurring and broad overlap of mass movements professing revolutionary goals with transnational criminal operations. The Internet and modern social media are allowing these mass criminal movements to expand their activities beyond kidnapping, extortion, and trafficking in drugs, arms, and people, to include fraud, piracy, information theft, hacking, and sabotage.
Violent mass movements remain in some Latin American countries, but, like the FARC, they are typically heavily engaged in organized crime. Drug cartels and gang warfare may ruin the lives of thousands of innocent people, but they should not be seen as equivalent to the ideological revolutionaries who used to wreak havoc in the region, or to contemporary mass terrorists.
Extra-regional terrorist movements such as al-Qaeda have minimal presence in South America, with little independent operational activity and few ties to local violent movements. At most, the two types of groups might share operational insights and revenue from transnational criminal operations. Hezbollah has not conducted an attack in Latin America in almost two decades. Indigenous organized criminal movements are responsible for the most serious sources of local violence.
Latin American countries generally are not a conducive environment for major terrorist groups. They lack large Muslim communities that could provide a bridgehead for Islamist extremist movements based in Africa and the Middle East. The demise of military dictatorships and the spread of democratic regimes throughout Latin America (except for Cuba) means that even severe economic, class, ethnic, and other tensions now more often manifest themselves politically, in struggles for votes and influence.
No Latin American government appears to remain an active state sponsor of foreign terrorist movements. At worst, certain public officials may tolerate some foreign terrorists’ activities and neglect to act vigorously against them. More often, governments misapply anti-terrorist laws against their non-violent opponents. For example, despite significant improvement in its human-rights policies, the Chilean government has at times applied harsh anti-terrorism laws against indigenous Mapuche protesters.
Indeed, Latin American terrorism is sometimes exaggerated, because governments have incentives to cite local terrorist threats to secure foreign support, such as US capacity-building funding. Just as during the Cold War, when Latin American leaders were lavished with aid for fighting communist subversion, governments seek to fight “terrorist” threats at America’s expense.
Ironically, the strength of transnational criminal organizations in Latin America may act as a barrier to external terrorist groups. Extra-regional terrorists certainly have incentives to penetrate the region. Entering the US, a high-value target for some violent extremist groups, from Latin America is not difficult for skilled operatives. Extra-regional terrorist groups could also raise funds and collaborate operationally with local militants.
But Latin America’s powerful transnational criminal movements, such as the gangs in Mexico that control much of the drug trafficking into the US, do not want to jeopardize their profits by associating themselves with al-Qaeda and its affiliates. Supporting terrorism would merely divert time and other resources from profit-making activities, while focusing unsought US and other international attention on their criminal operations.
Nevertheless, Latin America is not immune to the violent terrorism that has plagued other continents. The region’s countries clearly have vulnerabilities that weaken their individual and collective efforts to combat potential foreign terrorist activities. The US government has cited such recurring handicaps as excessive duplication of efforts, overlapping institutional mandates, and inadequate information-sharing and coordination of counterterrorism efforts.
In some sub-regions, such as the Caribbean, criminal organizations sometimes have stronger and more efficient transnational operations than local governments can counter, particularly given inadequate collaboration. National sovereignty concerns, especially in the US, can also limit international cooperation.
Finally, at the national level, some Latin American countries suffer from such terrorism enablers as corruption, weak government institutions, insufficient interagency cooperation, inadequate financial safeguards, misapplied terrorist laws against non-terrorists, and insufficient counterterrorism resources.
Cano’s death is a welcome blow to the FARC. But Latin America should redouble its efforts in order to avoid losing its enviable status as the region least threatened by international terrorism.
Richard Weitz, Senior Fellow and Director of Center for Political-Military Analysis, Hudson Institute.