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With no parliament and a president with a one-year extension, the country complicates the road to recovery.
The global economic and health crisis has affected all countries, but in Haiti the impasse at status has also aggravated a long-standing political crisis. With a president who has refused to leave position and renew parliament, and who has called a constitutional referendum to give himself more power, Haiti finds itself in a destructive spiral from which the international financial aid is unable to extricate it. The neighbouring Dominican Republic has announced the construction of a border fence to control entrance of Haitians.
article / Christian Santana
The coronavirus pandemic has aggravated Haiti's already difficult economic situation status and has also contributed to accentuating the institutional collapse that the country has been experiencing for the last five years, as it has somehow sheltered the exceptional occurrence of electoral postponements. agreement In terms of health, subject the impact of Covid-19 has not been particularly high, at least according to official figures (14,258 people affected and 307 deaths by the end of May 2021, well below the figures for the neighbouring Dominican Republic: 291,910 and 3,628, respectively), although the deficient national health system may suggest a higher incidence: in fact, Haiti is the last American country to begin vaccinating its inhabitants.
In a country with inherently low economic activity, where GDP declines are common, the global downturn in 2020 was understandably modest, while the recovery in 2021 is barely perceptible. Haiti's GDP fell by 3.7% in 2020 and will grow by only 1% in 2021, according to IMF estimates. The economic damage and its social consequences can be seen especially in the inflation rate, which last year was close to 23% and this year will remain above 22%. Moreover, in just two years, Haiti's public debt increased by almost ten points, from 38.3% of GDP in 2017 to 47% in 2019.
As early as April 2020, when the global recession began, the IMF warned of the damage being done by political paralysis. "Due to popular frustration with high levels of corruption and inequality, Haiti has been experiencing a prolonged political crisis and social unrest that has at times paralysed most of the country's economic activity," said report, and stated that "absent sustained implementation of good policies and comprehensive reforms, the outlook remains bleak".
In the following months the pandemic has worsened Haiti's already weak economic outlook. An expected sharp drop in remittance flows, reduced textile exports and falling foreign direct investment will put significant pressure on the balance of payments. Additional social and health expenditures, together with a further fall in tax revenues, will increase the fiscal deficit and financing needs. To address this emergency, the IMF approved in April 2020 the disbursement of USD 111.6 million. The amount was intended to alleviate the impact of the crisis on the population, such as paying the salaries of some teachers and workers, providing cash transfers and food rations to households, and providing subsidies to the transport and sanitation sectors.
goal At the beginning of 2021, the Haitian government introduced a post-Covid-19 (Precop) economic recovery plan, with the aim of achieving an average of 3% growth over the next three years, a gradual reduction of inflation to 10% and the creation of 50,000 jobs. According to the Haitian government, in 2020 the incomes of 95 per cent of households fell sharply and unemployment rose by 10 per cent.
In any case, Haiti lacks the political stability required for a rigorous implementation of the recovery plan. Since the first round of the 2015 presidential elections, the country has experienced its last long period of instability. Allegations of irregularities delayed the second round until November 2016. The victory went to Jovenel Moïse, with 55.6% of the vote and a very high turnout leave . Moïse was sworn in in February 2017, a year later than would have been normal had the two rounds not been so far apart.
The committee High Court of Justice ruled in early 2021 that the five-year term was due to expire on 7 February, but Moïse has remained at position, amid violent protests, claiming that his term actually ends on 7 February 2022. Although the judges appointed an interim president, Moïse has continued to rule, removing politicians and magistrates who have questioned his authority and whom he accuses of orchestrating a coup d'état (23 people were arrested in connection with the coup). He has the support of the armed forces, an institution he himself created anew in 2017 after two decades of being disbanded by Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
Moreover, Moïse has postponed legislative elections that should have been held in October 2019, so that since January 2020, when the parliament that was to be elected was to be constituted, he has been governing by decree. He now promises legislative and presidential elections for September and November 2021, but first he wants to proceed with a constitutional reform that should give him more power. A constitutional referendum has been called for 27 June to revalidate a new constitution drafted by a five-person commission, all of them appointed by Moïse. The new text envisages eliminating the Senate, making the system unicameral, and shielding former presidents from prosecution for corruption or other crimes. The 1987 constitution prohibits constitutional amendments by referendum, but Moïse argues that his initiative is not an amendment but a new constitution.
The international community has reacted to the violence and corruption in Haiti, but has failed to turn the tide status. The UN has complained about impunity and the US has applied sanctions against leaders who have violated human rights. However, these bodies have had to come to terms with the reality of Moïse's permanence in power and have gone on to demand that he keep to the announced electoral timetable, as has the Biden Administration and the European Union (although they reject constitutional change).
Relationship with the Dominican Republic
The conditions under which the pandemic has unfolded around the world have given the Dominican Republic the opportunity to propose a border with Haiti that can be hermetically sealed when appropriate and that would provide a greater obstacle to smuggling, drug trafficking and illegal immigration. In his last report to congress on 27 February this year, Dominican President Luis Abinader announced the construction of a fence along the 400-kilometre line separating the two countries on the island of Hispaniola. A dividing line that will combine physical and technological means and which will include "a double perimeter fence in the most conflictive sections and a single fence in the rest, as well as movement sensors, facial recognition cameras, radars and infrared ray systems". By May, 23 kilometres of fence had already been built, with a height of four metres and crowned with hawthorns.
Abinader, of the centre-left, compensated for this hardline policy by promising to give identity documents to Haitians living in the Dominican Republic (an estimated 500,000, or 5 per cent of the Dominican census, although the figure is probably higher). He also announced the concession to Haiti of various types of financial aid, such as the supply of surplus Dominican electricity and the contribution to the construction of hospitals, for use as maternity wards and with international funding, on the Haitian side of the border. Precisely the temporary migration of Haitian women to the Dominican Republic in order to give birth there under the public health system, in many cases despite their illegal status, is one of the most common arguments in the national discussion on migration from Haiti.
The Dominican Republic was hit at the start of the pandemic by a decline in exports and then by a halt in tourism, but this 2021 is seeing a rapid recovery, with total year growth estimated at 6.2% (after a 6.7% drop in 2020), a figure that is close to the growth of up to 7% it has experienced in recent years.
Pandemic crisis pushes for long-overdue economic reforms, but may be ineffective due to fears of out-of-control openness
The Cuban government has wanted to undertake economic reforms for years, but the distraction brought about by Chavista Venezuela's aid and internal doubts about the model economic openness delayed firm decisions. The Venezuelan collapse, first, and especially the pandemic, later, have brought the Cuban Economics to a breaking point that is forcing it to take measures, because the island's population is beginning to show some concern. framework Raúl Castro's departure from the scene constitutes an opportunity for change, but the uncertainties of the future can stiffen any transition, however modest it may be.
article / María Victoria Andarcia
After a particularly complicated 2020, Cuba took significant steps in the first months of 2021. In February, the government announced a massive expansion of permits for private initiative in different economic sectors. The Minister of work, Marta Elena Feito, announced that the list of sectors in which private enterprise would be authorised to operate would grow from 127 to more than 2,000 and that the state would reserve exclusivity in only 124 areas, which she did not detail.
With the development of "cuestapropismo", approximately 600,000 workers were employed in private activities in Cuba, 13% of the labour force. The vast majority of these initiatives are linked to the tourism industry, which has been affected by Donald Trump's tightening of sanctions and especially by the Covid-19 pandemic, which practically wiped out tourism in the Caribbean. According to ECLAC, at the height of the pandemic, 250,000 self-employed workers had suspended their licence from work. This unemployment is preventing the self-employed sector from being able to take on the public sector workers that the state wants to shed in order to slim down loss-making activities.
The Cuban Ministry of Economics puts the economic decline suffered by the island in 2020 at 11% of GDP, the worst since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, which left Cuba without the support of its economic breadwinner and led to the time of extreme hardship known as the "special period". Already in 2019 there was hardly any growth. In 2020 there was a 30 per cent reduction in imports, which has exacerbated the growing shortages of basic commodities and price inflation on the island, also driven by the exchange rate readjustment.
1 January 2021 was "day zero" of the monetary and exchange rate reform, 62 years after the triumph of the revolution led by Fidel Castro. This is the most complex economic reform undertaken by the country in the last three decades, after years of waiting. Since the "special period", two currencies had been in circulation in Cuba: the Cuban peso (CUP) and the convertible (CUC), equivalent to the dollar, which has been eliminated with the merger of the two currencies. The currencies were exchanged at different rates: for state enterprises, one dollar or CUC was equivalent to one Cuban peso, while for the population, the exchange rate was 24 pesos to the dollar. Unification has been accompanied by the fixing of a single exchange rate of 24 Cuban pesos to the dollar, the first official devaluation of the peso since 1959.
Rising inflation has affected the price of many products and services. While there has been an increase in salaries in the state sector, the price of electricity has increased threefold, water sixfold and bread and flour twentyfold.
The disappearance of the CUC has been compensated for by the opening of shops where one can buy with "freely convertible currencies", thus protecting the free circulation of the dollar and implying, at final, a covert dollarisation (in addition, a black market in foreign currency continues to operate, where the dollar is worth almost double the official exchange rate). These are establishments for tourists, but where the nomenclature can also buy products that are not available to the rest of the population. This has even contributed to internal criticism of a status of inequality, as Raúl Castro himself acknowledged in April in his speech to the 8th Communist Party . speech before the VIII congress of the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC).
Rising prices and growing inequality are contributing to a social malaise that is giving rise to increasingly timid public complaints. This is occurring in a context of isolated protests, such as that of the artists' guild, which speak of a growing unease that economic reforms should satisfy in the medium term deadline but which, if applied without decision or if they are not effective, could lead to a frustration of expectations.
In fact, the government's conviction in promoting economic reforms has so far been rather weak. In 2011, at the PCC's VI congress , in which Raúl Castro consolidated his leadership after succeeding his brother in 2008, a path of economic reforms was approved but only partially implemented. The aid provided by Chávez's Venezuela during the boom years led to the postponement of the most urgent measures, in what in reality amounted to a lost decade.
The island's Economics is highly dependent on foreign trade, although it is not a market Economics . The goods it exports are limited to its natural resources and traditional products with little processing: nickel, zinc, sugar, tobacco and rum. Services are the main item of Cuban exports, especially health services sent to Venezuela and other countries of similar ideological orientation. The need to import raw materials, oil and foodstuffs conditions the growth of the island's Economics . The USSR was a lifeline, above all because of its contributions of oil, as later happened with Venezuela, whose crude oil Cuba refined and exported as a gift, thus improving the flow of foreign currency.
Relations with the United States
The Venezuelan collapse was followed by increased pressure from the Trump administration. Although the US has maintained an embargo on the island since 1962, Barack Obama sought a mutual rapprochement that led in 2015 to the re-establishment of diplomatic relations. The embargo remained in place, as its lifting depends on congress, but Obama encouraged its relaxation through presidential decrees that increased contacts between the two countries, with the resumption of commercial flights, the authorisation of greater purchases on visits to the island and the promotion of tourism. source In addition, it allowed family travel to Cuba and facilitated remittances, which constitute an important source of foreign currency for Cuba, after income from professional services abroad and tourism. Thus, remittances increased by 143% between 2008 and 2017 (from USD 1.447 billion to USD 3.515 billion).
Trump maintained diplomatic recognition (although neither Obama nor he appointed an ambassador) and the sending of remittances, but reversed most of the decrees approved by Obama and also applied several rounds of sanctions. These included, among others, the suspension of visas for Cubans and the expansion of the list of Cuban companies run by the Armed Forces with which Americans cannot interact (even as tourists).
With the arrival of Joe Biden in the White House, it was hoped that relations between the historic enemies would improve again, but months later there are still no signs of change and Obama's former vice-president has not returned to Obama's strategy towards Cuba, but maintains the sanctions pressure of his immediate predecessor.
China and Russia
If in relations with the Obama Administration, Raúl Castro was looking for a new sponsor to somehow replace Venezuela, as Venezuela had replaced the USSR (in fact, secret negotiations with Obama began when the death of Hugo Chávez opened up uncertainties about Venezuela's future), Washington's slamming of the door may lead to greater rapprochement with Russia or China. Such rapprochement has been taking place in recent years, but for the moment there is no definite dependence on Moscow or Beijing.
If Russia's return to the Caribbean can be circumscribed to the availability military access (in Nicaragua, Cuba and Venezuela), in the case of China, there is a clear commercial stake. China has become the island's second most important commercial partner partner. Several Chinese companies such as Huawei and Haier have helped the Cuban telecommunications system development . Beijing recognises Cuba's strategic importance, given its geographic proximity to the United States, and can leverage this relationship to challenge its American enemy.
Both the deepening of this link and a firm step forward in economic reforms, perhaps imitating Vietnam in opening up the market without abandoning communism (Vietnamese communism, however, is a model with ballast), will depend on the new generation of leaders. Raúl Castro, more inclined to reform than his brother Fidel, did not push the process forward decisively because the boom in commodity prices, from which Cuba benefited very directly through Venezuelan oil, relativised its urgency. This is now being considered, but the new Cuban president, Miguel Díaz-Canel, to whom Raúl Castro also passed his last position in April as first secretary of the PCC, does not have the internal authority or the ascendancy over the army, which controls a large part of the Economics, that the Castros enjoyed.
The new administration displays a multilateral diary , but on crucial issues maintains Trump-era measures
With domestic affairs a priority due to Covid, the new Biden administration's attention to Latin America has generally been relegated to a very low priority. Abroad, negotiations with Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have been the focus of US diplomacy, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken taking centre stage. But some regional issues have domestic repercussions in the US, such as migration and drug trafficking, and Biden has put his Vice President, Kamala Harris, at the forefront of these problems management . With Biden's direct dialogue with his hemispheric counterparts hampered by the pandemic, it is Harris who is leading the meetings with the Mexican and Central American authorities, as in the trip she will make in June.
article / Miguel García-Miguel
Once in office, Joe Biden found a very different landscape from the one he had left behind after serving as Barack Obama's vice-president. Donald Trump pursued an isolationist and certainly not paternalistic policy compared to what has often been the character of the US relationship with its Western Hemisphere neighbours. Trump had a dominant and imposing tone at times core topic, such as during the T-MEC negotiations or in the application of sanctions against Cuba and Venezuela, but the rest of the time he disengaged from the region. This lack of involvement was to the liking of populist leaders of different persuasions, such as Mexico's Andrés Manuel López Obrador and Brazil's Jair Bolsonaro.
In the next four years, the Biden-Harris administration can be expected to return to multilateralism, action on climate change and the promotion of democracy and human rights, issues that are at the heart of the current US diary . These issues, as well as those related to migratory pressure and the desirability of countering China and Russia in the region with a "vaccine diplomacy" of their own, will shape relations with neighbouring countries. For the moment, however, Biden has maintained Trump's signature measures and is taking his time to detail what his Latin America policy should be.
NORTHERN TRIANGLE: Aid and growing tension with Bukele
During his election campaign, Joe Biden promised that if he became president he would carry out an aid plan for Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador that would amount to 4 billion dollars over four years and that would aim to promote the region's development in order to prevent the massive flow of migrants to the United States. Previously, as vice-president, Biden was directly involved in the Alliance for Prosperity that Obama launched in 2014 in the wake of a previous migration crisis, which sought to provide more than 750 million dollars a year to the Northern Triangle; the programme, which Trump reduced budget , did not prevent the new migration boom seen in recent years.
Undoubtedly, the region, one of the poorest in the world, needs incentives for its development development, but it also continues to face serious problems such as its propensity for natural disasters, dependence on foreign companies to exploit its resources, and the poor governance of its politicians. Thus, Washington has included among its priorities the denunciation of corruption in the Northern Triangle countries, publishing lists of corrupt politicians, already begun with Trump and now expanded with Biden. Precisely these denunciations and the anti-democratic drift of El Salvador's president, Nayib Bukele, are turning a relationship that Bukele had cultivated during the Trump era into a hostile one.
MEXICO: Migration and environment
Mexico, as a country with which it shares an extensive border, has always been a point core topic in US foreign policy and one of its priorities. With the arrival of the Biden Administration, more friction with López Obrador is expected than during Trump's presidency. Increased migratory pressure on the US-Mexico border is complicating Biden's presidency and risks damaging the electoral prospects of Vice President Kamala Harris, whom Biden has directly tasked with managing the migration crisis, which this year is breaking a new record. In addition, Mexico's limitations on the presence of the DEA, the US counter-narcotics agency, have strained relations. Biden has not yet travelled to Mexico, despite the fact that visit is one of the first visits made by US presidents.
Biden's environmentalist policy clashes directly with the interests of the Mexican president, who is focused on building a new large refinery instead of promote renewable energies. Precisely one of the points of tension will be the electricity reform that López Obrador plans to carry out, which will further limit the participation of private companies in the electricity sector and promote the use of non-renewable energies, which are in the hands of the state. The reform was recently suspended by a federal judge, but the government is expected to appeal the blockage. The obstacles to liberalisation fit poorly with the renewed agreement Free Trade Agreement between the US, Mexico and Canada (T-MEC).
COLOMBIA: Protests, peace accords and Venezuelan refugees
With Colombia, the Biden administration is in a period of trial and error. Following President Iván Duque's rapprochement with Trump, despite the latter's initial rebuffs, the Colombian government was praised by Biden for having decided to grant temporary protection status to the almost two million Venezuelan refugees living in the country. Biden congratulated Duque in February by letter, but so far there has been no interview between the two, not even by telephone.
The violent protests in Colombia, which have been met by a police management that has been widely criticised by civil service examination, have not undermined the Biden administration's expressed support for Duque for the moment, but the status could become unstable with the prospect of the presidential elections in May 2022. Washington is uneasy about some missteps in the implementation of the 2016 peace accords, such as the assassination of former guerrillas who have laid down their arms and of social leaders. In any case, Colombia is a convenient ally in the fight against drug trafficking, a task in which the two countries have long collaborated closely since the US's push for Plan Colombia.
Finally, Bogotá can also be useful to the US government in managing the Venezuelan crisis, and not only when it comes to retaining immigrants in the Andean country. The new channels of negotiation that Biden wants to open, while maintaining pressure on Maduro, require a regional consensus of support.
CUBA: The unknown of a post-Castro openness, at least economically
The Obama administration, in which Biden was vice president, carried out a historic rapprochement with Cuba by re-establishing diplomatic relations between the two countries. Although Trump maintained this diplomatic recognition, he eliminated some provisions that extended the contact with the island and imposed new sanctions. After the harsh policies of his predecessor, Biden will not for the time being stage a return to Obama's policies. The Cuban government did not reciprocate with signs of openness and favouring an immobile regime may have electoral consequences in the US. The possibility of Trump running in 2024 could project a new struggle for the Latino vote in Florida, particularly the Cuban vote, in a state that Biden lost in 2020.
Even so, the Biden Administration will try to loosen some of the sanctions, as has been seen with the authorisation to send remittances to the island. For its part, Cuba will probably play quid pro quo diplomacy and wait for its neighbours to take the first steps towards open policies, basically on economic issues.
VENEZUELA: Options for a credible dialogue
In Venezuela, the recovery of democracy and free elections remain the main focus goal and Biden has maintained the sanctions against the regime of Nicolás Maduro established by Trump. The new administration has moderated its language and taken off the table the possibility of military intervention, which was more rhetoric; however, it still considers Maduro a dictator and recognises Juan Guaidó as the legitimate president.
The priority is a negotiated solution, based on upcoming electoral processes, but talks have only been tentatively opened and so far no clear interlocutors or forums have been established. The US will try to cooperate with multilateral organisations such as the OAS, the group de Lima or the European Union to try to resolve the country's political and economic crisis. Cuba also enters into the equation in some way, as a change in Venezuela would considerably harm the island if the Castro successors decide to continue with the communist model .
Moreover, as with the Cuban issue, the attitude towards Chavismo has electoral consequences in the US, especially in Florida, as seen in the 2020 presidential election, so it is difficult for Biden to ease pressure on Maduro before the mid-term elections in November 2022. Biden has granted Venezuelans in the US temporary protected status.
BRAZIL: The Amazon as a touchstone
Due to the tone of Jair Bolsonaro's presidency, Brazil is another of the countries in the region with which the new administration has worsened its relations compared to the Trump period. Biden's emphasis on the environment and combating climate change pits him against a Bolsonaro who is clearly less sensitive to these issues, and who does not seem to react sufficiently to the increasingly deforested Amazon. However, even if Biden finds the relationship uncomfortable, the US will continue to work with Latin America's leading Economics , whose role remains important in regional development issues.
The year and a half remaining until Brazil's October 2022 presidential election presents a stalemate as the two countries wait for a possible political shift to bring the two countries more in unison, although a return to power of the Workers' Party would not necessarily mean a special consonance, as there was none with either Lula da Silva or Dilma Rousseff even with the Democrats in the White House.
Human rights and vaccines
In addition to the aforementioned countries, some others are also on the US agenda, especially in relation to human rights, such as the case of the democratic regression in Nicaragua or the attention that Bolivia could give to former president Jeanine Áñez.
On the other hand, it is expected that in the coming weeks, with most of the US population already inoculated, the US will proceed to submit million doses of vaccines to Latin American countries. In addition to the real financial aid that these deliveries will represent, they will be a way of counteracting the influence that China and Russia have secured in the region by sending their respective vaccines. If the US-China tug-of-war will mark Biden's presidency, as it will undoubtedly mark this entire decade, one area of contention will be the US "backyard".
China, Russia and Iran have increased their relationship with needier Latin America due to Covid, which has also provided an opportunity for organised crime.
► Nicolás Maduro Guerra, after getting the Sputnik V vaccine, with the Russian ambassador in Caracas, in December 2020 [Russian Embassy].
The severe health and economic crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic has accentuated Latin America's vulnerabilities, also in terms of regional security. On the one hand, it has increased dependence on external powers, whose influence has grown through the delivery of vaccines (China and Russia) or petrol and food (Iran). On the other hand, it has taken away the means for states to combat organised crime, which has made some strategic moves, such as the consolidation of Paraguay as an important focus of drug trafficking. issue Although the status of prolonged confinement has made it possible to reduce homicides in some places, as in the case of Colombia, the deterioration of regional stability has led to greater US attention being paid to the rest of the Western Hemisphere, with a clear warning given by the US Southern Command.
The needs imposed by Covid-19 across the globe have made some security requirements more pressing in certain countries. With international trade disrupted by movement limitations, China's food security concerns have pushed its long-distance fishing fleets to adopt more aggressive behaviour. Although a growing influx of Chinese fishermen has been detected in the waters around South America for some years now, in 2020, status marked a qualitative leap. The presence of more than 500 vessels raised concerns about the continuous evasion of radars, the use of unauthorised extraction systems and disobedience to coastguards. The governments of Chile, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru issued a joint statement calling for oversight of an activity that Beijing refuses to submit to international inspection. The intimidation is reminiscent of the use of Chinese fishermen as a "strike force" in the South China Sea, although here the goal is not about gaining sovereignty but about fishing. Washington has expressed concern about China's activity both around the Galapagos and in the South Atlantic.
The pandemic has been a propitious occasion for China and, to a lesser extent, Russia to consolidate their penetration of Latin America. Thanks to "vaccine diplomacy", Beijing is now a fully global partner : not only commercial and a provider of loans for infrastructure, but also on a par with the United States and Europe in terms of pharmaceutical excellence and health provider . While it is true that Latin America is getting more "Western" vaccines - only Peru, Chile and Argentina have contracted more Chinese and Russian doses - the export of injectables from China and Russia has allowed it to increase its influence in the region. Huawei has managed to enter Brazil's 5G tender in exchange for vaccines, and Beijing has offered them to Paraguay if it abandons its recognition of Taiwan. In addition to clinical trials in several Latin American nations in the second half of 2020, Argentina and Mexico will produce or package Sputnik V from June.
The worsening humanitarian crisis in Venezuela throughout 2020, on the other hand, made it easier for Iran to strengthen its ties with Nicolás Maduro's regime, resuming a special relationship already in place during the Chávez and Ahmadinejad presidencies. With no more credits from China or Russia, Venezuela looked to the Iranians to try to reactivate the country's crippled refineries. Not particularly successful in that endeavour, Iran eventually became a supplier of more than 5 million barrels of gasoline via cargo ships; it also delivered food to supply a supermarket opened by the Iranians in Caracas. With oil production at a record low, Maduro paid for Tehran's services with shipments of gold, worth at least $500 million.
All this activity by extra-hemispheric powers in the region is identified by the US Southern Command, the US military structure responsible for Latin America and the Caribbean, as a cause of serious concern for Washington. In his annual appearances before the congress, the head of SouthCom has progressively raised the threat level to Degree . In his last appearance, in early 2021, Admiral Craig Faller was particularly alarming about China's advance in the region: he referred to the controversy over Chinese fishermen - their alleged encroachment on exclusive economic zones and illegal activity - and the $1 billion credit announced by Beijing for financial aid on Covid-19 health equipment. Faller said the US is "losing its positional advantage" and called for "immediate action to reverse this trend".
Another of Washington's concerns relates to transnational crime, specifically that perpetrated by Latino gangs in the US. In the last year, US federal prosecutors have for the first time charged members of the Mara Salvatrucha with national security crimes. The US continues to classify the gangs as a criminal organisation, not as group terrorists, but in charges filed in July 2020 and January 2021 against the MS-13 leadership imprisoned in El Salvador, some of its leaders have been upgraded to terrorists. The department of Justice considers the connection between the decisions taken in Salvadoran prisons and crimes committed in the US to be proven. In the last five years, US courts have convicted 504 gang members, 73 of whom received life sentences.
In terms of citizen security, the prolonged confinements for Covid-19 have allowed for a slight reduction in violence figures in some countries, especially in the first half of 2020. In the case of Colombia, this conjunctural effect was combined with the trend towards leave in the issue homicide rate that has been observed in the country since the beginning of the peace process negotiations in 2012, so that the 2020 figures represented a historic low, with a rate of 24.3 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, the highest leave since 1975. Several programs of study consider that there is a link between the demobilisation of the FARC and the consistent decrease in the level of violence that the country is experiencing. This is a positive development that is overshadowed by the murder of social leaders and ex-guerrillas, which at the beginning of 2021 had already risen to more than a thousand since the signature of the agreement de Paz in 2016.
The drug trafficking chapter has seen two notable developments in the past year. One is the increase in "trial" coca cultivation in Honduras and Guatemala, which were previously only transit countries for cocaine. Both are consolidating their beginnings as producer countries, which is an important qualitative leap despite the fact that production is still very limited. After cocaine processing laboratories were located in both countries, the first plantations were discovered in 2017 in Honduras and in 2018 in Guatemala; since then, more than 100 hectares of coca bush have been detected, a very small number for the time being. Over the course of 2020, Honduras eradicated 40 hectares of cultivation and Guatemala 19. Part of this own-production infrastructure came to light in the US trial of Tony Hernández, brother of the Honduran president, who was sentenced to life imprisonment in March 2021.
For its part, Paraguay is on the rise on the drug trafficking map, as the largest producer of marijuana in South America and a distributor of cocaine from Peru and Bolivia. Most marijuana cultivation takes place around Pedro Juan Caballero, near the border with Brazil, which is the country's criminal centre. The plantations cover some 8,000 hectares, with production reaching 30,000 tonnes, 77% of which goes to Brazil and 20% to Argentina. At the beginning of 2021, more than 30 tonnes of cocaine shipped from Paraguay were located in northern European ports, making it a decisive distribution hub for the drug.
Most of the cultivation takes place in the area around Pedro Juan Caballero, near the Brazilian border, which is the country's criminal centre.
° Marijuana plantations cover some 8,000 hectares, with a production of 30,000 tonnes, 77% of which goes to Brazil and 20% to Argentina.
As a transit point for cocaine from Peru and Bolivia, Paraguay has seen a leap in the volume of shipments to Europe, with a record shipment of 23 tonnes at the beginning of 2021.
° The Paraguayan congress has C the medicinal use of marijuana; for the moment it is not following in the footsteps of Mexico, the leading producer in the Americas, which discussion its full legalisation.
Paraguayan President Mario Abdo Benítez and the then Argentinean Minister of Security, eradicating marijuana plants in PJC [Gov. of Paraguay].
Paraguay is on the rise on the drug trafficking map, as the largest producer of marijuana in South America and as a distributor of cocaine from Peru and Bolivia. With an estimated cannabis cultivation area of almost 8,000 hectares and an annual production of close to 30,000 tons, Paraguay exports the drug to Brazil and Argentina. finding The cocaine that passes through the country is destined for these two large neighbours and, above all, for Europe: in February 2021, the German authorities intercepted a 16-tonne cocaine shipment, the largest ever sent from Paraguay, an amount that rose to 23 tonnes in February 2021, including a shipment located two days earlier in Antwerp. A further 11 tonnes were found in Antwerp at the beginning of April.
While, in the case of Paraguay, the most surprising development in the last year has been this leap in the capacity to generate large cocaine shipments, the rapidly evolving international context in relation to marijuana - for example, the UN reclassified it in December 2020, noting its therapeutic potential - makes this other lucrative illicit trade particularly topical.
The growing legalisation of hemp leaf, which is beginning to take place in some countries, generating its own production (unlike coca, which due to its specific conditions is cultivated almost exclusively in Colombia, Peru and Bolivia, marijuana can be grown in different places, even in greenhouses) offers business prospects for the farmers who are currently involved in its illegal cultivation in Paraguay, This offers business prospects for the farmers who currently grow it illegally in Paraguay (not so much for the mafia structure of Brazilian origin, since in order to compete in Uruguay, the only nearby country that has legalised national production for open use, Paraguayan marijuana would have to be sold more cheaply than Uruguayan marijuana). Mexico, which is the largest producer in the Americas, is in the process of decriminalising recreational use; Paraguay is not there yet, but the law passed in August 2020 to allow medicinal use allows individual cultivation if there is medical certificate .
Production and eradication
Marijuana production is linked to organised crime, especially in the border areas with Brazil. According to figures provided by the administrative office National Anti-Drugs Office (SENAD), the largest operations against the cultivation of this drug take place in the department of Amambay, whose capital, Juan Pedro Caballero, is the country's criminal centre. This city is adjacent to the Brazilian border and shares an urban mass with the Brazilian town of Punta Porá. The adjacent department of Canindeyú, also bordering Brazil, is also home to extensive plantations.
In the decade 2009-2019, SENAD destroyed 9,838 hectares of marijuana plant cultivation in Amambay and 2,432 in Canindeyú, together accounting for about 90 per cent of the 15,045 hectares eradicated nationwide. In 2019, the latest damage referenced by SENAD, authorities eradicated 1,468.5 hectares, the highest figure of the decade, which not only indicates an increase in the anti-narcotics effort, but also suggests an increase in cultivated areas.
Paraguay is estimated to have between 6,000 and 8,000 hectares of marijuana plants. An improved seed introduced a few years ago has made it possible to expand the usual two harvests per year to three or even four harvests, raising productivity to between two and three tonnes of marijuana herb per hectare, bringing total production to as much as 20,000 tonnes per year. These figures may have been underestimated, as SENAD has estimated that up to 30,000 tons of weed could have left the country in the last year.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) World Drug Report 2020 ranks Paraguay as the country with the largest marijuana seizures, at over 1,000 tonnes per year. The report also indicates that hemp resin production is minimal (1.1 tons in 2016) and that 77% of the marijuana generated in Paraguay is destined for the Brazilian market and 20% for the Argentinean market.
In the Americas, Paraguay's production is surpassed only by Mexico, which has an estimated 12,000 hectares of plantations, according to the US government's 2021 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR), agreement . The amount of cultivated area eradicated by the Mexican authorities is also higher, although this effort has fallen in recent years (5,478 hectares in 2016, 4,193 in 2017 and 2,263 in 2018), as indicated by the UNODC's report , which at the same time points out that in Mexico some 200 tonnes of marijuana were seized in 2018, compared to 400 tonnes in 2017.
Paraguay is a fertile ground for the establishment of criminal networks. Its strategic position is a determining factor and a fundamental condition for it to be chosen by organised crime as a focal point for its criminal activities. Situated between the coca production centres of Peru and Bolivia and the growing markets of Argentina and above all Brazil, which are also a destination for Paraguayan marijuana, the country is a place of operation for mafias, especially Brazilian ones. The conditions of the Triple Border - the conurbation formed by Ciudad del Este (Paraguay), Foz de Iguaçú (Brazil) and Puerto Iguazú (Argentina) - also encourage smuggling, product counterfeiting and money laundering, as well as the financing of terrorist groups(such as Hezbollah).
Economic factors also play a role. Economic and social marginalisation is an element that these organised crime gangs resort to in order to recruit "employees". However, this factor can only partly explain the particular development of these networks. The scale of these networks depends fundamentally on the level of acceptance and tolerance of corruption. In this sense, Paraguay has the ideal conditions for the development of these networks. This is due to its high levels of state corruption, as indicated in the Corruption Perceptions Index.
Highlighting the obstacle that corruption in Paraguay poses to the fight against drug trafficking, in January 2020 a mass escape from a prison in Pedro Juan Caballero of 75 prisoners, mostly members of a Brazilian criminal gang First Capital Command (CCP), took place. The escape was facilitated by the collusion of officials and highlighted the impunity with which many of the drug traffickers operate.
Both are consolidating their beginnings as producer countries, which is an important qualitative leap despite the fact that production is still very limited.
° The first plantations were discovered in 2017 in Honduras and in 2018 in Guatemala; since then more than 100 hectares of coca bush have been located.
° During 2020, Honduras eradicated 40 hectares of coca cultivation and Guatemala 19 hectares; in addition, almost twenty cocaine processing laboratories were destroyed.
° The expansion of coca production into Central America is the work of Mexican cartels, which employ Colombian experts in locating the best areas for cultivation.
Honduran counter-narcotics action in a coca plantation in October 2020 [Gov. of Honduras].
Cocaine production has begun to spread to countries in Central America, which until recently were only transit points for cocaine coming mainly from Colombia, which is the world's largest producer, along with Peru and Bolivia.
The finding of drug processing laboratories in Honduras in 2009 already suggested the beginning of a shift, confirmed by the location of coca bush cultivation itself in 2017 in Honduras and in 2018 in Guatemala. Since then, more than 100 hectares have been located in both countries: some 50 hectares were counted together in those first two years, a figure that was doubled in 2020 in what appears to be an acceleration of the process.
In any case, these are very small areas, compared to those estimated by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in its 2020 report for Colombia (around 180,000 hectares), Peru (almost 50,000) and Bolivia (around 25,000). Furthermore, the United States has so far claimed that it has no record of cocaine generated in the Central American Northern Triangle being found on its territory. entrance .
Everything indicates that for now we are in a stage of experimentation or essay by Mexican cartels, who are testing the aptitude terrain and climate of different areas and the quality of the product, with the help of Colombian experts, financial aid . Changes in the drug trafficking chain since most of the FARC left the illicit business in Colombia and the desire to reduce the complex logistics of transporting drugs to the United States explain these attempts in the Northern Triangle.
In Honduras, the location of crops has increased in the last two years. The latest report of the International Narcotics Control Strategy (INCSR), from March 2021, prepared by the US State Department's department , includes official Honduran information that 40 hectares of coca bushes were eradicated in the first ten months of 2020. This represents an increase in the number of cultivation areas compared to previous years, which estimated the accumulation of 50 hectares throughout 2017 and 2018 in Honduras and Guatemala combined.
The first evidence in Honduras that drug trafficking was not only using its territory as a transit point was the finding in 2009 in the province of Cortés of a laboratory for the transformation of coca leaves into cocaine hydrochloride. In ten years, twelve laboratories were discovered and in 2020 alone the authorities proceeded to destroy at least another eleven, as indicated by the INCSR. Although some had the capacity to produce up to 3.6 tons of cocaine per year, their facilities were rather "rudimentary", according to Honduran law enforcement agencies.
The existence of these laboratories led to the conclusion that some amount of coca leaf may have been cultivated in the country since at least 2012, but it was not until 2017 that a cultivated area was found, in the province of Orlando, with some 10,000 plants. In 2018, three other farms were located, one of them 20 hectares in size. Cultivation activity and laboratory is not concentrated in a specific area, although half of the findings have been made in the aforementioned provinces of Orlando and Colón.
The last particularly noteworthy location, in an increasingly visible process of locating coca fields, was carried out by the National Directorate for the Fight against Drug Trafficking (DLCN) in March 2020, which corresponded to a field of some 4.2 hectares of cultivation and narco-laboratory in the Nueva Santa Bárbara community. In 2020, at least 15 coca fields were seized, with a total of 346,500 plants.
The DLCN believes that Mexican cartels, such as the Sinaloa and Jalisco cartels, are behind this penetration, although they do not operate directly, with a deployment of armed individuals, but on several occasions through growers of Colombian origin, who know how to take care of the coca plant.
Recent convictions in the US, such as that of the brother of Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernández, have provided details of the drug trafficking corridor that is Honduras, but also the country's incipient homegrown production. As exposed in his trial, Tony Hernández, sentenced to life imprisonment in March 2021, had a direct relationship with a local cocaine laboratory .
In the case of Guatemala, the first finding of coca leaf cultivation took place in 2018. Although it was only one hectare in size, with 75,000 plants, it also marked the country's emergence as an incipient producer. In addition to having been, like Honduras, a transit channel for cocaine from Colombia, Guatemala had already distinguished itself for its moderate production of marijuana and for having begun to grow poppy, as an extension of the activity of Mexican cartels involved in the heroin market, of which Mexico is the leading producer in the Americas. Now Guatemala, where narco-laboratories have also appeared, included coca among its illicit narcotics crops.
In 2019, Guatemalan authorities made an effort to combat this activity. On 4 September of that year, they declared a 30-day state of siege in 22 municipalities in the north of the country. Police operations led to a number of seizures, especially in the Departments municipalities of Izabal, Alta Verapaz, Petén and Zacapa. Some 23 cultivation areas were located, eight of them in Izabal.
Following these findings, Interior Minister Enrique Degenhart admitted that Guatemala had become a cocaine-producing nation.
In the first ten months of 2020, 19 hectares of coca cultivation were eradicated and seven laboratories were destroyed, according to the latest INCSR, pointing out, in any case, that coca production in Guatemala is on a "limited scale" (as in Honduras, but even lower than in neighbouring Guatemala), at a distance from that of the largest South American producers.
Increased role for gangs
The Honduran and Guatemalan authorities fear, due to the increase in drug production activity, that some areas of their countries will become the new "Medellín of Pablo Escobar". The existence of areas that are difficult to access and the lack of resources for monitoring and combating organised crime complicate counter-narcotics efforts.
There is also a risk that the gangs or maras will gain even more power, entrenching or even aggravating the problem they pose. Because of their spatial dominance, they have so far collected tolls for the passage of drugs throughout the territory, but with production in the Northern Triangle itself, they could also come to control the very origin of the drugs, giving them the prerogatives of the cartels.
At the same time, international coordination against drug trafficking becomes more complicated, as it becomes more difficult to locate production sites and identify the actors involved.
The high issue of murdered social leaders continues to dismay the country: 904 assassinations since the 2016 Peace agreement
° In 2020 there were 24.3 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants in Colombia, the most leave since 1975, when there was a similar rate, and below that of other countries in the region.
° The issue homicide rate in 2020 was 12,018, following the progressive decline recorded since 2002, only openly broken in 2012, when 16,033 murders were committed.
° programs of study concludes that there is a link between the demobilisation of the FARC and the consistent decrease in the level of violence that the country is experiencing.
Religious ceremony in Dabeiba in February 2020, after recovering the remains of a man who disappeared in 2002 [JEP]g
Colombia is gradually reducing its levels of violence, at least in terms of the homicide rate, which in 2020 fell to 24.3 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, the lowest figure leave since 1975. Although the drama of the murder of social leaders has overwhelmed Colombian society in the post-conflict management , the objectivity of the overall figures speaks of a reduction in violent deaths. This decrease has been driven in recent years by the FARC's withdrawal cessation of armed struggle and has presumably been favoured in 2020 by the prolonged confinements established to deal with the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The country closed 2020 with 12,018 homicides, the most leave in decades, less than half the number in the early 1990s, during the worst period of the armed conflict. At that time, issue homicides exceeded 28,000 per year, or around 80 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants. Since then, with slight upturns in 2002 and 2012, Colombia has been reducing its levels of violence and today its homicide rate is far from the records being set by other countries in the region: although in some cases the health emergency has also helped to lower the figures, in 2020 the highest fees were those of Jamaica (46.5 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants), Venezuela (45.6), Honduras (37.6), Trinidad and Tobago (28.2) and Mexico (27).
(In the case of Colombia, the authorities spoke at the end of 2020 of a rate of 23.79, although later homicide figures from the National Police and data population figures give as result the estimate of 24.3 that has been chosen here).
Conflict and post-conflict
While ELN guerrillas remain active and several FARC dissidents continue to engage in criminal activities, around 8,000 ex-combatants were incorporated into civilian life as a result of the agreement peace agreement between the Colombian government and the FARC, which began negotiations in 2012 and was signed in 2016.
The years prior to the beginning of the contacts saw an increase in violence, and then a steady decrease since then, not only in violence related to the political conflict, but also in violence related to crime in general. When investigating the homicide fees during the years of the peace talks with the FARC, the Directorate of research Criminal and Interpol in Colombia revealed a close relationship: when the armed confrontation increased or decreased, depending on the interests of the negotiators, so did the total number of homicides. The good progress of the negotiation marked a dynamic of de-escalation of the armed conflict, with a reduction of 8.57% in the homicide rate between 2012 and 2015.
In 2017, after the signing of the peace agreement agreement , violence in Colombia reached its lowest levels in 30 years, with 12,079 homicides and a rate of 25.02 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants. However, in 2018 the trend changed slightly (12,130 homicides), something that was pronounced in 2019 (12,667), which alerted to the need to rapidly implement the conditions for the reintegration of ex-combatants, improve security in demilitarised zones and increase state presence in the territory.
The high school of Medicina Legal concluded that the homicide figures for 2018 seemed to show a reactivation of the Colombian armed conflict. status For its part, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights presented in 2019 a report evaluating the human rights situation in Colombia, with emphasis on the implementation of the contents of agreement de Paz: the highest homicide figures were in Antioquia, Cauca and Norte de Santander, where the clashes for the control of illicit economies were most violent.
Effect of Covid
Post-conflict measures and the arrival of the pandemic, with its restrictions on movement, again led to a drop in homicides in 2020. In the period from 20 March to 17 August 2020, when the strictest confinements were in place, daily homicides per municipality fell, on average, by 16% from their pre-social distancing trend. In the weeks of full quarantine, the daily homicide issue even fell by around 40% from the pre-quarantine trend. From June 2020 onwards, the homicide issue returned to pre-emergency trends. Crime dropped in the first months due to fear of contagion, but quickly returned to the usual figures, especially in terms of robbery and theft, as the economic status worsened and the need for food among the poor increased. However, because of what happened in the first semester of the year, Colombia closed 2020 with thehighest homicide rate leave in the last 46 years.
A clear negative of 2020, however, was the continuation of violence directed against social leaders and ex-combatants. Last year, 297 local leaders were killed, bringing the total number of social actors killed from 2016 to February 2021 to 904. In the same period, 276 former guerrillas were killed, most of them involved in appearances before the Special Jurisdiction for Peace.
Federal prosecutors charge El Salvador's mara leadership with national security offences
° The US still classifies gangs as a criminal organisation, not as group terrorists, but in the last year it has come to consider some of their leaders as terrorists.
° The department of Justice considers the connection between the decisions taken by the MS-13 leadership from Salvadoran prisons and crimes committed in the USA to be proven.
° In the past five years, US courts have convicted 504 gang members, 73 of whom received life sentences.
Inmates of the maras in Salvadoran prisons, in April 2020 [Gov. of El Salvador].
US authorities have in the past year taken a significant leap in their reaction to the violence of the main Latino street gang, the Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13. For the first time, federal prosecutors filed terrorism charges against the gang's leaders, opening the door to a review of the classification of MS-13, which has been considered an international criminal organisation in the US since 2012 and could be designated group terrorist, as is already the case in El Salvador.
The focus of the Justice department on violence with a Central American connection, however, may have been due to the Trump administration's prioritisation of the fight against illegal immigration. It is not yet known whether the Biden administration, which is less interested in criminalising immigration, will insist on the category of terrorism. However, police and judicial pressure on gang members responsible for crimes on US soil does not seem likely to diminish for the time being.
In July 2020, the US Justice department released terrorism charges against Armando Eliú Melgar Díaz, alias Gangster Blue, sealed since the previous May in the Eastern District Court of Virginia. The charges included conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists, committing cross-border acts of terrorism, financing terrorist actions and conducting narco-terrorist operations. Melgar had lived in Virginia, with some absences, between 2003 and 2016, when he was deported. In November 2018, he was arrested and detained in El Salvador. Prosecutors believe he directed MS-13 criminal activity on the East Coast from El Salvador, apparently ordering and approving assassinations, overseeing drug trafficking businesses, and collecting money for local cliques or organisations.
Having opened this avenue of terrorism charges, which carry heavier penalties, against leaders who allegedly ordered the commission of crimes from El Salvador, the US Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of New York proceeded a few months later with the broadest and most far-reaching indictment against MS-13 and its command and control structure in the history of the United States, alleging crimes "against national security". Thus, in January 2021, the U.S. Attorney's Office made public an indictment, secretly formalised the previous month, with indictments against fourteen MS-13 leaders, all of them members of the Ranfla Nacional or gang leadership, which was headed, according to the Public Prosecutor's Office, by Borromeo Enrique Henríquez, aka Diablito de Hollywood. Eleven of them are in Salvadoran prisons and three are fugitives. The charges were similar to those brought against Melgar, but the indictment does not provide details of specific actions. The crimes of different cliques of the MS-19 are attributed to them, since, as part of its leadership, they were ultimately responsible for ordering the commission of many of the crimes. According to the prosecutor announcing the case, "MS-13 is manager of a wave of death and violence that has terrorised communities, leaving neighbourhoods awash in bloodshed". The US proceeded to prepare the respective extradition requests.
In addition to these two cases, which would fit into a conceptual framework that appears to seek to prosecute group terrorist leadership (even though terrorist status has not been applied by the United States to any gang, nor is there consensus on a narrow centralisation of criminal decision-making), several prosecutions of MS-13 members were launched in 2020 for crimes strictly related to murder, kidnapping, drug trafficking, weapons possession, and other organised crime activities. On the same day in July 2020 that the Melgar indictment was announced, the Eastern District Court of New York filed a case against eight members of the organisation and the District Court of Nevada against thirteen others; in August, the Eastern District of Virginia proceeded to arrest eleven more individuals associated with the gang.
These actions showed a commitment to enforce the investigations that had recently intensified, at the end of a presidential mandate that had made the fight against gangs one of the priorities of department Justice. Precisely at the end of 2020, this department published a report taking stock of the "efforts" carried out in this field between 2016 and 2020, graduate "Large-scale response". The report, which estimates that there are some 10,000 gang members in the United States, counts that 749 gang members were charged in US courts during this period; of these, 74% were in the country illegally, 8% were US citizens and 3% were legal residents. These prosecutions led to the conviction of at least 504 individuals, of whom 37 received life sentences.
The Attorney General also opened procedure to apply for the death penalty for two defendants involved in crimes that had a special social resonance. They are Alexi Sáenz, who is accused of seven murders, almost all of them using a machete or a baseball bat, and Elmer Zelaya, accused of coordinating the stabbing of two young men; most of the victims were teenagers. This extreme violence was highlighted by Donald Trump at several points during his term in office and he referred to it last July when the aforementioned terrorism cases were announced. He called the gang members "monsters who murder children", and indicated that the US authorities would not rest until "every member of MS-13" was brought to justice.
For its part, the FBI has formed Transnational Anti-Gang Units (TAGs) with security forces from several Central American countries, which since 2016 have been responsible for hundreds of arrests and have assisted in the extradition to the US of 68 defendants, 35 from Guatemala, 20 from Honduras and 13 from El Salvador.
Barack Obama's 2011 provisions empowering consideration of gangs as international criminal organisations, in the framework of a new National Strategy to Combat Transnational Organised Crime, were used by the Treasury'sdepartment in 2012 to apply that consideration to MS-13. The same categorisation was used in 2017 by the department Justice Department as the basis for the "war on gangs" launched by Trump. In 2018, the congress itself highlighted the dangerousness and incidence of gangs, in actions decided from El Salvador.
In 2019, Attorney General William Barr travelled to El Salvador, where he gathered information from the Salvadoran authorities, whose Supreme Court had already designated the maras as group terrorists in 2015. Alleged evidence of the chain of command, which connects orders for assassinations and other crimes given from Salvadoran prisons and their execution in the United States, reportedly underpinned the 2020 decision to open terrorism cases against gang members in US federal courts.
This change in the subject offence can be core topic in the future of the fight against gangs by offering a number of advantages, as there is no statute of limitations on terrorism charges and they have harsher penalties associated with them. International law also provides a greater arc and leeway for countries fighting terrorism, so cooperation between countries could be greatly enhanced; indeed, making charges comparable in the US and El Salvador could speed up extradition requests.
However, the move is not Exempt controversial. In the same way that international drug trafficking charges against the gang members have been of little use, since they do not properly constitute a transnational drug cartel, it remains to be seen how effective it would be to invoke terrorism charges in this case, given that the maras, at least in the US, do not have the range of features of a terrorist organisation: there is certainly not the element of wanting to be a political actor. In any case, as Steven Dudley, co-director of Insight Crime and author of MS-13: The Making of America's Most Notorious Gang, has said, the US government's decision to charge the visible leaders of MS-13 in El Salvador with terrorism "may be a sign of how poorly they understand this gang or how well they understand their judicial system".
The USSOUTHCOM chief's appearance on Capitol Hill raises the annual Degree alert to Chinese influence and US pushback.
° In his latest appearance, Admiral Craig Faller warned that the US "is losing its positional advantage' and called for "immediate action to reverse this trend".
° In recent years the Southern Command's speech at congress has highlighted the penetration of China, Russia and Iran, hand in hand with Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua.
° Analysis of the Pentagon chief's interventions in the region sample the growing involvement of the Maduro regime in criminal activities.
► visit of the head of the US Southern Command to Montevideo in April 2021 [SouthCom].
The US Southern Command - the military structure within the US Armed Forces responsible for Latin America and the Caribbean - has been progressively raising the alarm about the growing influence of Russia and especially China in the Western Hemisphere, to the detriment of the US position. This, combined with the threat posed by organised crime organisations, especially those involved in drug trafficking, led USSOUTHCOM chief Admiral Craig Faller to confess in March to feeling "an incredible sense of urgency": "the hemisphere we live in is under attack", he said in his annual appearance before the US congress , dedicated to analysing the threats and opportunities the region presents in terms of security.
In his third "posture statement" to the congress since heading Southern Command, Faller warned that the US is losing its "edge" in the hemisphere and argued that "immediate action is needed to reverse the trend". Analysing his 2019 and 2020 speeches, as well as that of his predecessor, Admiral Kurt Tidd, in 2018, there is a worsening perception of the rivalry with China. Increasingly, the reference letter to the Chinese threat is more explicit and occupies more space. What was first seen as economic leverage, through increased trade and credit allocation, is now presented as more global and strategically more dangerous. According to Faller, China is seeking to 'establish a global logistics and infrastructure base in our hemisphere to project and sustain military power over greater distances'.
The change of Administration has not brought about any change in this worsening perception of the risks being generated in Latin America. Although Joe Biden's presidency has meant a change in tone from that of his predecessor, hostility towards Beijing and the desire to closely monitor other authoritarian regimes such as Russia and Venezuela have been maintained. Hence, the "posture statement" presented this year by the head of the Southern Command is consistent with previous ones in pointing to the growing activity of Russia and China in the region (and of Iran, in coordination with Hezbollah), as well as its partnership with Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua, countries that Faller called "malign regional state actors".
The use of Cuba
One of the constant and recurring threats that is gradually increasing is China's economic diplomacy strategy in several countries in the region: through loans and investments, Beijing incorporates these countries into its international trade network , sometimes integrating them into the New Silk Road initiative. The 2018 statement did not mention the issue number of Latin American nations participating in the initiative; the 2019 statement counted 16, and the 2020 statement spoke of 19, indicating a clear trend that China is gradually increasing its activities and influence in the hemisphere. The 2020 strategy also stated that 25 of the 31 countries in the region have Chinese infrastructure projects, which, as the head of the Southern Command expressly points out, could be used in the future to support Chinese military interests. Added to all this is the COVID-19 crisis, which China has used to increase its regional influence through its potential for medical supplies and vaccines.
Venezuela features prominently in the last four statements. Over the years, the situation progressively worsens and the Southern Command's stance towards Maduro's regime hardens: it goes from not calling him illegitimate to calling him illegitimate, and then openly accuses him of involvement in drug trafficking activities. It underlines its close military collaboration with Russia and with Colombian narco-terrorist groups - the ELN and FARC dissidents - which it hosts on its territory.
Another aspect that is reiterated is the emphasis on Cuba's destabilising role: how Havana interferes in internal affairs in Venezuela and Nicaragua, instructing these oppressive regimes on how to repress opposition movements and demonstrations, sometimes sending its own agents to fulfil this repressive function. In addition, the strategy also addresses the fact that Russia uses Cuba as a base for its intelligence operations towards the US and to project its power in the region.
The Southern Command's statements are in line with the concerns expressed in the document framework Strategic for the Western Hemisphere, produced by the National Security committee in 2020. Although the Trump Administration will have to formulate its own strategic plan for the region, no substantial changes can be expected, given that there is the same interest in restoring democracy for Nicaragua, Venezuela and Cuba; in promote transparency and fighting corruption; in combating illicit activities, such as drug trafficking and human smuggling; and in addressing China's growing presence in the region.
With oil production at a record low, the Maduro regime has turned to the precious metal to pay for Tehran's services.
° With no more credits from China or Russia, Caracas consolidated in 2020 the reborn relationship with the Iranians, who are in charge of trying to reactivate the country's crippled refineries.
° In the past year, Iranian-delivered cargo ships have brought more than 5 million barrels of gasoline to the Caribbean nation, as well as products for its Megasis supermarket.
° The involvement of entities related to the Revolutionary Guard, declared group terrorist by Washington, makes any gesture towards the Biden Administration difficult.
► The Venezuelan Vice President and the Iranian Vice Minister of Industry inaugurate the Megasis supermarket in Caracas in July 2020 [Gov. of Venezuela].
Venezuela's relationship with extra-Hemispheric powers has been characterised in the last year and a half by the resumption of the close ties with Iran seen during the presidencies of Hugo Chávez and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. With the financing possibilities provided by China (it has not granted loans to Caracas since 2016) and Russia (its oil interest in Venezuela, through Rosneft, was particularly constrained in 2019 by the Trump administration's sanctions on PDVSA's business) exhausted, Nicolás Maduro's regime once again knocked on Iran's door.
And Tehran, once again encircled by US sanctions, as it was during the Ahmadinejad era, has once again seen the alliance with Venezuela as an opportunity to stand up to Washington, while at the same time reaping some economic benefits in times of great need: shipments of gold worth at least $500 million, according to Bloomberg, are said to have left Venezuela in 2020 as payment for services rendered by Iran. If the credits from China or Russia were in exchange for oil, now the Chavista regime also had to get its hands on gold, as the state-owned PDVSA's production was at an all-time low, at 362,000 barrels per day in the third quarter of the year (Chávez took over the company with a production of 3.2 million barrels per day).
The change of partners was symbolised in February 2020 with the arrival of Iranian technicians to start up the Armuy refinery, abandoned the previous month by Russian experts. Lack of investment had led to neglect of the maintenance of the country's refineries, which was causing severe petrol shortages and long queues at service stations. Iran's attendance would barely manage to improve the refinery status , and Tehran had to make up for this inefficiency by sending in gasoline tankers. Food shortages also provided another avenue of relief for Tehran, which also dispatched ships with foodstuffs.
Gasoline and food
The Venezuelan-Iranian relationship, which without being completely eliminated had been reduced during the presidency of Hassan Rohani, as the latter focused on the international negotiation of the nuclear agreement to be reached in 2015 (known as JCPOA), resumed throughout 2019. In April of that year, the controversial Iranian airline Mahan Air received permits to operate in Venezuela on the Tehran-Caracas route. Although the airline has not marketed the air route, it has chartered several flights to Venezuela despite the closure of territorial airspace ordered by Maduro due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Mahan Air's operations served to transport Iranian technicians who were to be employed in efforts to restart gasoline production at the Paraguaná complex refineries, as well as material necessary for these tasks.
According to researcher Joseph Humire, these and other arrangements were allegedly prepared by the Iranian embassy in Venezuela, which since December 2019 has been headed by Hojatollah Soltani, known for "mixing Iran's foreign policy with the activities" of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). He estimates that Mahan Air would have flown around 40 flights in the first half of 2020.
Similarly, Iran has been sending multiple fuel tan kers to Venezuela to address petrol shortages. The first shipment came in a flotilla of tankers that, in defiance of US sanctions, entered Venezuelan waters between 24 and 31 May, carrying a combined 1.5 million barrels of gasoline. In June, another vessel arrived with an estimated 300,000 barrels, and three others brought 820,000 barrels between 28 September and 4 October. Between December 2020 and January 2021 another flotilla would have carried 2.3 million barrels. To this total of at least 5 million barrels of gasoline should be added the arrival of 2.1 million barrels of condensate to be used as a diluent for Venezuelan extra-heavy oil.
In addition to fuel, Iran has also sent medical supplies and food to help combat the humanitarian emergency the country is suffering. Thus, it is important to highlight the opening of the Megasis supermarket, which is linked to the Revolutionary Guard, an Iranian military body that the Trump Administration included in the catalogue of terrorist groups. The store sells products from brands owned by the Iranian military, such as Delnoosh and Varamin, which are two of the subsidiaries of the Ekta company, allegedly created as a social security trust for Iranian military veterans. The Ekta supermarket chain is subordinate to the Iranian Ministry of Defence and the Armed Forces Logistics, an entity sanctioned by the United States for its role in the development ballistic missiles.
Gold and Saab
This activity is of concern to the US. An Atlantic Council report details how Iranian-backed networks prop up the Maduro regime. Venezuelan oil minister Tareck El Aissami has been identified as the core topic actor behind the illicit network . He allegedly agreed with Tehran to import Iranian fuel in exchange for Venezuelan gold. According to agreement according to the Bloomberg information cited above, the Venezuelan government had delivered to Iran, until April 2020, around nine tons of gold worth approximately 500 million dollars, in exchange for its attendance in the reactivation of the refineries. The gold was apparently transported on Mahan Air flights to Tehran.
The negotiations may have involved Colombian-born businessman Alex Saab, who already centralised much of the Chavista regime's food imports under the Clap programme and was getting involved in Iranian gasoline supplies. Saab was arrested in June 2020 in Cape Verde when his private plane was being refuelled on an apparent flight to Tehran. Requested to Interpol by the United States as Maduro's main front man, the extradition process remains open.
The entities involved in many of these exchanges are sanctioned by the US Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control for their connection to the IRGC. The IRGC's ability to operate in Venezuela is due to the reach of network to support Hezbollah, an organisation designated as a terrorist organisation by the United States and the European Union. Hezbollah has successfully infiltrated Venezuela's Lebanese expatriate communities, giving Iran a foothold to grow its influence in the region. These links make it difficult for Caracas to make any gesture that might be attempted to facilitate any de-escalation by the new Biden administration of Washington's sanctions.