South and Central America are on a crash course for regional collapse and a geopolitical disaster which could drastically alter the political landscape of the Western Hemisphere and plunge the United States into dire crisis.

The past year in particular has been marked by a growing number of indications that a significant number of Latin American nations are due for some level of civil strife, which creates the real risk of a major migrant crisis for the United States, an increase in drug and weapons trafficking and an expanded proliferation of terror networks. The changing political landscape is due in part to the involvement of South American nations in forming their own European Union-style regional infrastructure, which will serve in the short term to perpetuate current political chaos. In addition to the challenges these changes pose to the United States, the transformation in Latin America will provide new opportunities for foreign powers such as China and Russia to compete with American interests in the region.

I. Regional Destabilization

Multiple countries throughout South and Central America are experiencing varying levels of turmoil which are both exacerbating existing threats to their security and sovereignty as well as creating new risks. If left unchecked, such issues could combine to create serious regional security liabilities.

A. Honduras

Honduras was thrown into turmoil in late November 2017, when a bitterly contested election resulted in widespread protests throughout the country amid allegations of systemic fraud and vote rigging. Despite the fact that the initial vote tally had favored center-left opposition candidate Salvador Nasralla, after a 36-hour delay the US-supported incumbent Juan Orlando Hernández was declared the winner. The apparently fraudulent result led to calls for a fresh election from official observers acting on behalf of the Organization of American States (OAS) on December 18th, 2017. The levels of violence have only escalated in the aftermath of the initial unrest, with fresh reports that clashes between protestors and Honduran security forces on January 21st, 2018 leaving at one dead and raising the overall death toll to at least 31.

The New York Times noted in December 2017 that the friction between American supported factions and the opposition had created a moral crisis for the United States, who justify the propping up of the current government as necessary to maintain regional stability as well as stem the flow of migrants and drugs heading for the US’ southern border. American support for Honduras is part of a broader strategy to shore up Central American nations and assist them in combatting drugs, weapons and undocumented migrants that are making their way from South America to the United States.

The political situation in Honduras remains brittle at best, with a large percentage of the country left with a feeling of alienation after an ostensibly illegitimate election. The danger that the turmoil could worsen or be exploited by foreign powers for strategic gain is significant.

B. Peru

Developments over the past year in Peru strongly indicate that the country is now at severe risk of seeing a new wave of civil conflict, harkening back to the decades-long civil war fought between the government and rebel groups connected to the country’s lucrative drug trade. On December 27th, 2017, Australia’s ABC News and other outlets reported that widespread protests had broken out across the country after Peru’s sitting President Pablo Kuczynski pardoned former President Alberto Fujimori, who is accused of committing war crimes during the civil war. The decision to pardon Fujimori was particularly unpopular because of recent accusations that his daughter has been using the Conservative Popular Force (FP) party to strangle political opposition parties in Peru. On March 21st, 2018, Kuczynski himself was forced to resign after the FP party released video showing Kuczynski trying to buy votes in order to avoid impending impeachment proceedings.

As a result of the unrest, the United States Embassy in Peru issued a security message to all embassy personnel on December 19th, forbidding them from using any forms to transport to and from work outside of motorized vehicles as well as prohibiting any use of commercial areas in close proximity to the Embassy. This advisory was significant, as State Department personnel can sometimes utilize commercial areas near US Embassies even in countries considered to have elevated or “high” risks of terrorism. The restrictions were extended through January before ending the following month.

Heightened tensions in Peru are of serious cause for concern. Despite the fact that open hostilities officially ended in the country around 2000 when former President Fujimori resigned and his successor established a truth and reconciliation committee to chart a path to peace the conflict has simmered and remained active (albeit on a smaller scale). Peru’s foremost rebel group, the Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso) has been able to support itself by controlling production of cocaine in Peru. In 2017 alone, the Shining Path have engaged in many attacks against government personnel, including the Peruvian police, the Peruvian armed forces and even military vehicles. The serious risk that the situation in Peru will continue and result in significant political destabilization is high.

C. Brazil

Brazil has increasing reason for elevated alertness, as recent activity has indicated that its government is concerned enough with transnational trafficking groups who are in the business of moving illegal weaponry and drugs to begin taking serious measures against them. Brazil’s two largest organized crime syndicates, First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital or PCC) and the Red Command (Comando Vermelho) have expanded their operations across South America. The PCC operates not only throughout every state of Brazil, but also in states such as Colombia, Paraguay, Bolivia and Venezuela, where massive destabilization has allowed them to gain a strong foothold. The Red Command also operates within Bolivia and Paraguay. Bolivian newspaper El Deber has cited Bolivian officials who say that the two groups have struck agreements dividing territory in states where they operate.

Brazil has begun to take steps to disrupt the activities of trafficking groups operating in Paraguay as well as prepare militarily for any future unrest, likely in response to growing concerns from Paraguayan officials about the risk of an increase in insurgent activity in the region. On December 13th, 2017, Reuters reported that the Red Command’s most wanted arms trafficker, Marcelo Pinheiro Veiga, was arrested in the Paraguayan town of Encarnación, near the Argentinian border amid ongoing attempts by Brazilian police to stem the flow of guns and drugs within their own country. Red Command leadership has been able to operate with impunity in Paraguay, often paying off local authorities to remain unbothered.

On October 25th, 2017, military publication Diálogo reported that Brazilian and Paraguayan military forces engaged in military drills with combat units and armored vehicles, the first such collaboration between the two countries on the ground. As Paraguay has objected in the past to Brazilian military exercises along the border in the past, the new shift shows a sudden concern between the two countries that the general security situation is likely to deteriorate in the near future. Brazil has also stepped up its aerial operations along the borders of Paraguay and Bolivia as part of Operation Ostium in order intercept flights of narcotics which finance the PCC and Red Command.

While the deteriorating environment within Brazil does not yet appear to be significant enough to warrant concerns about total state failure, the decision to deploy the Brazilian Army in the state of Rio De Janeiro in February 2018 shows that the government is extremely concerned about the growing influence of transnational trafficking groups.

D. Paraguay

In addition to its ongoing infestation of trafficking organizations, Paraguay is also increasingly at risk due to a small but persistent insurgency. The Paraguayan People’s Army (EPP) officially only boasts a few hundred members, yet their operations have increased each year as the group grows bolder. Benefitting from discontent amongst impoverished Paraguayans and corruption within the country’s security forces, the EPP has sustained itself by engaging drug trafficking as well as a spree of kidnappings. Recent developments indicate that the EPP is seeking to grow its influence by engaging with organized crime groups. On November 24th, 2017, Brazilian news source Universo Online reported that two members of the EPP were arrested in the São Paulo region of Brazil, raising questions about which groups they were seeking to meet with.

EPP members arrested in Brazil

The continued existence of the EPP and their increasing collaboration with criminal trafficking factions will remain a liability for Paraguay, a fact driven home by the government’s newfound willingness to work with Brazil on securing their shared border regions.

E. Bolivia

Bolivia is currently undergoing some public discontent against leader Evo Morales at a time when the country is woefully unprepared to deal with Brazilian criminal operations which have crept into the country over time. In November 2017, BBC News and other outlets reported that Bolivia’s Constitutional Court was allowing Morales to run for a fourth term in 2019, despite the fact that a majority of Bolivians had rejected this in a national referendum which Morales had initially insisted he would respect. Morales’ bid has created some controversy and observers such as the International Institute for Strategic Studies now anticipate turbulence for the near future.

Morales’ shift represents an attempt by the Foro de São Paulo, a conglomerate politically left-leaning parties in countries such as Cuba, Ecuador, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Uruguay and others seeking to counterbalance the influence of right-wing political parties elsewhere within South America. The Foro de São Paulo has previously been criticized for it’s ties to violent terror groups such as FARC and the ELN.

Bolivia is positioned particularly poorly to deal with the expansion of Brazil-based transnational trafficking organizations which have expanded their operations into the country. In July 2017, Bolivian paper Página Siete reported that Minister of Government Carlos Romero was forced to admit Bolivia was “not prepared to deal with criminal organizations.” Insight Crime, a think tank which focuses on organized crime in the Americas, has documented a growing number of open attacks by the PCC and Red Command against Bolivian businesses, sometimes resulting in the death of Bolivian security officials. Such a situation is dangerous not only to Bolivia, where discontent against Evo Morales is growing, but to neighboring states such as Peru and Paraguay where militant revolutionary groups will benefit from the weapons that trafficking organizations can supply to them.

F. Venezuela

Venezuela’s abject situation hardly needs any introduction. The country has suffered a failing economy that has fallen by 50% since 2013 according to CNN and hyperinflation which was reported by financial blog Zero Hedge to have hit a new all-time high on March 14, 2018. In 2017, the conflict between supporters of political opposition parties and the government of President Nicolás Maduro was described as being “the most combative” since protests began. With economic and political pressure growing each year, Maduro’s government has allowed an increasing number of dangerous actors to begin operations within Venezuela, making an already bad situation even more unstable.

Reports from Insight Crime in 2017 indicate that Brazil’s PCC has now expanded into Venezuela, looking to cash in on lucrative opportunities trafficking weapons around South America to the multitude of criminal and revolutionary organizations seeking arms. Intercepted communications between PCC members published by Brazilian newspaper O Globo show that traffickers are moving weapons including AK-47 and AR-15 rifles, which fetch lucrative prices on the black market and are believed to originate largely from Venezuelan military and police forces willing to sell them illegally. The exchange of black market services by trafficking groups in return for influence and safety to operate in Venezuela has caused Venezuelan opposition leaders to accuse Maduro of running a “narco-dictatorship and mafia state.”

ELN rebels are indirectly used by Venezuela’s government as a foreign policy tool in neighboring Colombia

Venezuela has also become a resource for Colombia’s armed rebel groups who have battled the government for decades. After Colombia’s vaunted peace deal with the FARC, the main remaining rebel group, the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) took the opportunity provided by a ceasefire to re-arm and prepare for further conflict according to a report by Bloomberg. In the aftermath of the ceasefire’s end on January 9th, Colombia has been hit by a wave of violence not only against government troops, but between rival rebel groups seeking to control Colombia’s lucrative cocaine trade. The renewal of the conflict means that Colombia is likely to see instability down the road, especially since foreign groups such as Mexican cartels seek to expand their operations in the country. Rebel groups in Colombia have long had connections to the Maduro government in Venezuela, meaning they can act as a proxy to marginalize Colombia and help Venezuela maintain regional influence.

In an even more alarming development, Islamic terror organizations have also begun using states such as Venezuela for logistical and revenue reasons, outlined in detail below.

II. Islamic Terror Networks Now Operate Openly In The Western Hemisphere

Islamic terror networks have operated for decades in South America, primarily in the Triple Frontier region between Paraguay, Argentina, and Brazil. Hamas, Hezbollah, Al-Qaeda and ISIS all have connections on the continent. Currently, however, the organizations that pose the most serious security risk to the region and the United States are ISIS and Hezbollah.

A. Hezbollah

Hezbollah maintains formidable networks throughout South America. The tendrils of the terror organization stretch northwards into the United States, where as a 2017 Politico report exposed, Hezbollah maintains drug trafficking and money laundering operations to support the group’s global infrastructure. A report by the United States Government Accountability Office demonstrates that, much like in the Middle East, Hezbollah can act as a foreign proxy for their chief benefactor Iran.

The rise of transnational trafficking and regional instability in South America has directly benefitted Hezbollah, who have made inroads in regions such as Venezuela and Brazil. In November 2017, Brazilian newspaper Correio Braziliense outlined a report which drew on a study from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies revealing a broad level of collaboration between Hezbollah and Brazil’s chief trafficking organization, the PCC. Hezbollah’s relationship with the PCC has strengthened their ties to Venezuela, where they have long had a direct relationship with Nicolas Maduro’s government. An April 2015 report by Argentinian news source Infobae alleged that Maduro had negotiated deals involving trafficking, passports and money laundering with Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah while serving as Foreign Minister during a trip to Syria in 2007.

Although Hezbollah currently does not much incentive to carry out attacks in the United States, it has the ability to do so if it wished. It is likely for this reason that pundits have begun to warn about the danger that the terror group poses. US President Donald Trump has prioritized combatting what he terms the “Iran Threat Network” currently embedded in Latin America. Hezbollah remains a dangerous risk to the United States, especially since American foreign policy will likely continue to collide with Iran’s in the Middle East.

B. ISIS

While ISIS has lost ground in the Middle East, they have more than made up for this setback by spreading their operations abroad in Europe, Africa, Asia and the Western Hemisphere. A 2017 report by the Department of State outlined growing support for the Islamic State and other terror networks, and an opportunity for them to expand their operations due to porous borders, unstable political situations and established trafficking networks who are happy to collaborate with terror groups for the right price. ISIS has been able to embed cells in countries such as Brazil, the Caribbean and Colombia. Disobedient Media has previously published research indicating that ISIS’ connections to cartel groups through their branches in West Africa has allowed them move assets into the United States, due to a troubling amount of evidence indicating that the terror organization commonly collaborates with Mexican cartels (although it is important to point out that an even larger number of terror operatives enter the US through Canada). In addition to using the region to build networks of terror cells, a 2016 report from the Spanish Defense Ministry revealed that ISIS also engages in fundraising activities similar to those of their Shia counterparts, Hezbollah.

ISIS represents a recurrent and ever-present danger to both the United States and Latin America. In 2018 US forces have been obligated to assist local authorities in unlikely locales such as Trinidad and Tobago to thwart impending terror attacks. With regional destabilization likely to accelerate a growing migrant crisis along the United States’ border, ISIS will no doubt be seeking to exploit the situation much like they have previously done in the Mediterranean. The impending turmoil in the Southwestern Hemisphere is sure to provide a boost to ISIS and other terror organizations who are active in the region.

III. Involvement Of Foreign Intelligence In South And Central America

Although there are some domestic causes for increasing destabilization in South and Central America, foreign intervention has also played a role in both fomenting and preventing unrest. Intelligence operations of the three dominant great global powers, Russia, the United States and China have all been active with both positive and negative results.

A. CIA And United States Intelligence Destabilization Operations

The CIA has long been active in South America, but their most direct contribution to heightening the risk of a political and humanitarian crisis in the Western Hemisphere has undoubtedly been their efforts to assist with fomenting unrest in Venezuela. Documents leaked by NSA contractor Edward Snowden show that the agency has been attempting to undermine the Venezuelan government since at least 2007 due to the perception that the country was America’s main geostrategic rival in the region.

In 2013, a lawyer and former confidant of Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez leaked a document to Russia Today’s Spanish language website which allegedly showed that two right-wing groups Colombian groups tied to former President Alvaro Uribe had met with American business advisory firm FTI Consulting to plan disruptions of Venezuelan municipal elections in December 2013. FTI Consulting has also been accused by the United Nations of helping the Somali President’s office to cover-up, rebut and discredit allegations of corruption. It has also been sued by by Israeli billionaire Beny Steinmetz over allegations that FTI worked with George Soros to strip one of Steinmetz’s companies of rights to an iron ore project.

Although the document’s authenticity was never verified, the leak appears to have been totally ignored by the international press. However, research indicates that individuals working for FTI during the date of the alleged document’s creation have ties to the intelligence community. FTI’s Chairman of its Latin American wing, Frank Holder, has a long history of questionable activities in Latin America and previously served as the President of Kroll Inc. Consulting Services Group. The Dominican Republic online publication Acento has directly claimed that Holder is a former CIA operative. Holder now works for the Berkeley Research Group as does Matias Mora, a long time associate of Holder who previously served as a Senior Managing Director at FTI Consulting Panama.

Comments made in February 2018 by former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson about the possibility of a coup in Venezuela lead to accusations that the US continues to undermine the government of Nicolas Maduro. US officials have since stressed that they have no intelligence on any such planned actions.

The CIA’s long-term operations in Venezuela are ill-advised not because Maduro’s government is just, or because the promotion of freedom and democracy would somehow not be beneficial to the Venezuelan people. Such efforts are shortsighted due to the fact that Venezuela serves a strategic role of standing between other unstable South American nations and Central America. To contribute to the collapse of law and order in Venezuela is to increase pressure on governments in Central American nations as well as Mexico, in some cases increasing the risk of the resulting chaos harming US interests in the region and endangering the United States itself.

B. Chinese Geopolitical Maneuvering

As the political landscape has shifted in South America, China has moved to extend their influence in order to compete with the United States. A January 2018 report by The Diplomat outlined China’s desire to extend it’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to countries throughout South America, taking advantage of a distinct lack of interest from other foreign powers in cultivating influence across the region. Indian news source Asian News International has also noted that China is expanding military ties in South America, causing some concern to the United States.

China’s Minister of Science and Technology, Wan Gang (3-L), examines a model train, accompanied by Ecuador’s Vice President, Jorge Glas (2-R-Front) and the secretary general of UNASUR (2-L) during a ceremony at UNASUR’s headquarters in Mitad del Mundo, Ecuador

China has also been using Chinese organized criminal networks as foreign policy tools to further their interests in South America. Loosely defined as a collective group of organizations known as “Red Dragon,” Chinese criminal groups support their operations by dabbling in moving drugs and practicing local extortion, but primarily dealing in lucrative human trafficking. A 2014 report by Argentinian newspaper La Nación has outlined a successive number of Triad-linked murders in the country, showing that the influence and power of such groups is growing exponentially as China begins to focus on the region. These criminal networks are difficult for local law enforcement to combat, primarily due to language barriers between police and Chinese migrants living on the continent.

Disobedient Media has previously investigated the connections between Asian organized crime groups throughout the Western Hemisphere and Triads based primarily in Hong Kong, who have long had relationships with factions of the Chinese Communist Party. The utilization of these networks can provide groups from China with the ability to covertly move assets around the Southwestern Hemisphere as well as exert control over communities of Chinese living abroad.

China’s focus on South America as the region destabilizes will likely focus on strengthening their own networks and expanding influence with various factions on the continent as the political landscape is reshaped. This approach will put them at odds with the United States.

C. Russian Intelligence And Military Involvement

Russia’s involvement in Latin America has mainly consisted of shoring up pre-existing relationships with traditional allies while forging stronger ties with certain nations which will grant them footholds in the region while also providing economic opportunities for Russian businesses in nations such as Mexico and Brazil. In 2017, Sputnik reported the alarm of the United States Southern Command at Russia’s decision to sell 50 T-72B to the government of Nicaragua, one of the nations Russia has been seeking to draw into its regional sphere of influence. The sale is part of a wider Russian policy of selling weapons to South and Central American nations, which also provides opportunities for Russian intelligence to gain fresh footholds. These advances drew stern criticism from the CIA-connected Washington Post, who accused Russia of seeking to re-ignite Cold War tensions.

Russia’s motives in expanding diplomatic, military and economic ties in the Southwestern Hemisphere can best be understood in light of their desire to stem the wave of destabilization as it moves northward from South America. Russian ally Venezuela is experiencing ongoing systemic problems, and Caribbean nations such as Jamaica are being forced to increasingly escalate measures to curb growing violence affecting their countries in 2018. Attempts to shore up states like Nicaragua will ensure that currently stable allies such as Cuba will not face future issues in total isolation. As these measures will indirectly help stem the flow of refugees and violent chaos washing towards the United States, Russia’s actions do not directly interfere with long-term American foreign policy objectives in the region, although circumstances may change with future developments.

IV. Effect Of Regional Destabilization Will Endanger The United States And Benefit UNASUR

The problems brewing in South America have negative implications for both the United States and Central America, but also present new opportunities for special interests in the Southwestern Hemisphere seeking to redraw the landscape and create new geopolitical entities in the region. In particular, the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) has been taking steps to solidify its influence and control with beleaguered countries such as Venezuela. Because of the competition the formation of UNASUR will cause on top of already existing stability issues, it is likely that South American unrest will spread northwards, creating problems for nations such as Mexico and causing a migrant crisis of significant magnitude.

A. Inevitable Migrant Crisis Threat To The United States

The growing chaos building throughout South America is developing into a migrant crisis which is likely to rival the ongoing situation in the Middle East, where migrants and refugees have overwhelmed Europe after waves of destabilization struck a number of countries such as Libya and Syria which traditionally have served as buffers preventing unchecked immigration.

In late 2017, Deutsche Welle began to speculate that Venezuela’s problems would result in a refugee crisis which would aggravate pre-existing issues for neighboring countries such as Colombia. As Venezuelans flee the country in growing numbers, they have begun to experience backlash from local populations in neighboring states. Bloomberg has noted growing tensions in the region caused by Venezuelan unrest which have intensified throughout 2018. These developments have lead to calls from the United Nations for Venezuelans leaving their home country to be treated as refugees. Think tanks with questionable ties to foreign special interests such as the Brookings Institute have begun to call for the international community to help provide solutions to migrant issues in the Southwestern Hemisphere, evoking memories of establishment attitudes in the chaos of the Arab Spring.

As South America continues to see widespread unrest, the migrant crisis will only become more dire. With large numbers of migrants beginning to head north to the United States in caravans, reports from outlets such as Newsweek have already noted that there is evidence that organized crime is seeking to exploit the situation, using the crisis to move assets across the United States border. Much like in the Mediterranean, terror networks and drug cartels will create a security risk to America by seeking to utilize trafficking networks.

B. Destabilization For Mexico And Central America

With nations such as Venezuela, Colombia and Peru all experiencing their own issues are dangerously close to spiraling out of control, the forecast for their northern neighbors in Central America is not optimistic. The Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Honduras has published research showing that murder rates in Honduras are among the highest in the world, with further studies showing that weapons trafficking in the country is widespread and systemic. Mexico too saw murder rates in 2017 that have broken records as the country’s cartel-fueled drug violence has continued to spiral out of control. Similar situations can be observed in states such as El Salvador and Nicaragua as well.

Central America is totally unprepared to deal with regional destabilization in South America, and will be unable to cope with any abnormal influx of migrants fleeing unrest. The resulting chaos will allow cartel organizations and terror networks operating in the region to exploit the situation for their own gain. Indeed, it is not out of the question to expect that states such as Mexico may face civil war like conditions in the country over the next decade should cartels continue to gain influence over territory that they control.

C. UNASUR To Benefit From Weakened Sovereign States

A major reason that South American destabilization is unlikely to subside is that multiple nations have a geopolitical interest in weakening their neighbors as the continent has begun to consider forming a European style regional union. The Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) was formulated as a legal entity in 2011 and seeks to become an intergovernmental regional organization comprised of all South American countries. Uruguayan MercoPress has identified the bloc’s main leadership as stemming from Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela and Ecuador. Its interactions with nations such as China show that foreign powers take the bloc’s future seriously and see it as a potential economic partner.

UNASUR has benefitted from growing instability in states such as Venezuela and Colombia, where it has taken a more influential role in countries affected by domestic issues. Reuters reported in March 2017 that most members of UNASUR came out strongly against Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro’s attempts to consolidate power and isolate his political opposition in the country, with only Foro de São Paulo members Bolivia and Ecuador declining to join in condemnations. Bolivian President Evo Morales has instead called on UNASUR members to respect Venezuelan sovereignty.

UNASUR’s attempts to expand its control amidst South American regional destabilization indicates a pattern of conflict between the bloc and members of the Foro de São Paulo, as well as between leading powers within UNASUR itself. With Venezuela and Colombia both attempting to exploit the other’s precarious domestic situations, and Brazilian criminal organizations expanding their control in these areas, it can confidently be said that as UNASUR gains momentum in its formation that a struggle for ultimate control will continue and potentially intensify. This conflict will manifest itself in quarrels between left and right-leaning political parties, establishment and rural factions and between trafficking organizations and security forces across the continent. Such disturbances will perpetuate already growing numbers of refugees and the political instability that such conditions create by default.

V. Conclusion

11th Century Chinese statesman Su Shi once said that “the most dangerous situation for a country is when apparently everything seems fine, but hidden danger lurks. If one only sits back to watch, the situation will worsen to the point of no return.” While South American political issues might not currently be of pressing interest to most American citizens, the problems brewing in Latin America should be of some significant concern to the United States.

With dramatic political change often comes a period of chaos and instability. For the United States this will mean a migrant crisis that could rival the one currently plaguing the European Union, an increase in the power and reach of international cartel and trafficking groups as well as the danger that terror and foreign intelligence organizations will be able to breach American borders with increasing ease. Many Europeans were caught off guard by the Arab Spring – when it comes to South America’s Spring, America needs not be so unprepared.

Contributor, founder of Disobedient Media.