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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].

report SRA 2021 / summary Executive [PDF version] [PDF version].

MAY 2021-The serious 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 shipment of vaccines (China and Russia) or gasoline and food (Iran). On the other hand, it has reduced the means for states to combat organized crime, which has made some strategic moves, such as the consolidation of Paraguay as an important focus of drug trafficking. Although the status of prolonged confinements has allowed to reduce in some places the issue of homicides, as in the case of Colombia, the deterioration of regional stability has led to a greater attention of the United States towards the rest of the Western Hemisphere, with a clear alert given by the U.S. 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.

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