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Tulane University

National Intelligence Threat Assessment and Latin America

By Ludovico Feoli

On January 31st the Director of National Intelligence presented his assessment of worldwide threats faced by the US to the Senate’s Select Committee on Intelligence. As it regards Latin America, the assessment is interesting for what is says as much as for what it omits. The main threats identified are from the drug trade and its derivative violence, but little is said about the strategic implications of waning US regional influence and environmental challenges.

While not stated explicitly, the threat level assessed for the region does not seem particularly significant. Progress is recognized in terms of the region’s stability, both economic and political. While democracy is seen as having advanced regionally, reversions are attributed to “populist, authoritarian leaders” in Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Nicaragua. The implications of such reversions are not considered, with the partial exception of Venezuela, where it is suggested that Chavez’ inability or unwillingness to deal with succession despite his uncertain cancer prognosis may lead to a power vacuum. Also implied is the potential for instability given the “country’s 25 percent inflation, widespread food and energy shortages, and soaring crime and homicide rates.” Venezuela has the second largest level of proven oil reserves in the world, on which the US still depends for a large, albeit declining, percentage of its imports.

The drug threat to the US is seen as central, mainly due to its effect on violence and corruption in the region, which are undermining governance and the rule of law along the drug corridor of Central America. In turn, this is seen as fostering a “permissive environment for gang and criminal activity to thrive”. Mexico is described as the primary front of the war on drugs and its progress in degrading cartels and disrupting criminal operations is recognized. The heavy toll in terms of violence is also recognized, with over 28,000 deaths in 2010 and 2011 alone. Yet, the security implications are seen as largely confined to Mexico: “We assess traffickers are weary of more effective law enforcement in the United States. Moreover, the factor that drives most of the bloodshed in Mexico—competition for control of trafficking routes and networks of corrupt officials—is not widely applicable to the small retail drug trafficking activities on the US side of the border”. This view seems at best sanguine. It ignores the broad-ranging social implications of repressive anti-drug policies and the strains they create for law enforcement and the judiciary system. It also underestimates the consequences of a militarized policy that places the onus of enforcement on regional governments. As the dead pile up those governments will be less willing to pay the human costs of US drug consumption, and inter-regional relations will become increasingly strained.

The assessment is remarkably scant about the consequences of waning American influence in the region. While it notes the region’s accommodation of “outside actors”, such as Iran, Russia, and China, it says nothing of the implications. While Iran’s influence is limited to the Bolivarian Alternative partners, the reach of Russia and, especially China, is much broader. China has become the largest trade partner to Brazil, Chile, and Peru and has engaged in direct investment and joint ventures throughout the entire region. It has also sought to increase its soft power with good will gestures like the construction of high-visibility public works, soft loans and donations. The strategic significance of these inroads for the US should merit attention. At issue is competition for scarce natural and energy resources that will become increasingly vital for future economic growth. But also the clout in international affairs that comes with these types of economic and political relations.

Also absent in the assessment is consideration of environmental challenges with regard to Latin America, although elsewhere the report comments on the risks of water security and natural disasters. Environmental degradation and resource scarcity are potential contributors to international conflict. Global warming and climate change can also pose considerable risks for Americans at home. Deforestation and other forms of environmental degradation can intensify the impact of natural disasters creating humanitarian and refugee crises that bear upon the US, as was illustrated by hurricane Mitch in Central America and the Haitian earthquake, among others. The US has a key security interest in partnering with Latin America for the pursuit of environmental goals. The region concentrates a large portion of the world’s biodiversity and forested areas and is therefore an indispensable partner for the control of global emissions and natural conservation.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

  • Ludovico Feoli

    Executive Director - Center for Inter-American Policy & Research

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