Regional security in the Americas has been the focus of concern over the past year in Venezuela. We also review Russia and Spain's arms sales to the region, Latin America's presence in peacekeeping missions, drugs in Peru and Bolivia, and homicides in Mexico and Brazil.
▲ Igor Sechin, director Rosneft executive, and Nicolás Maduro, in August 2019 [Miraflores Palace].
report SRA 2020 / summary executive[PDF version].
Throughout 2019, Latin America had several hotspots of tension - violent street protests against economic measures in Quito, Santiago de Chile and Bogotá, and against political decisions in La Paz and Santa Cruz, for example - but as these conflicts subsided (in some cases, only temporarily), the constant problem of Venezuela as the epicentre of insecurity in the region re-emerged.
With Central American migration to the United States reduced to a minimum by the Trump administration's restrictive measures, it has been Venezuelan migrants who have continued to fill the roadsides of South America, moving from one country to another, and now number more than five million refugees. The difficulties that this population increase entails for the host countries led several of them to increase their pressure on the government of Nicolás Maduro, approving in the OAS the activation of the Inter-American Reciprocal Treaty of attendance (TIAR). But that did not push Maduro out of power, nor did the assumption in January 2019 by Juan Guaidó of the position as president-in-charge of Venezuela (recognised by more than fifty countries), the failed coup a few months later or the alleged invasion of Operation Gideon in May 2020.
While Maduro may appear stabilised, the geopolitical backdrop has been shifting. The year 2019 saw Rosneft gain a foothold in Venezuela as an arm of the Kremlin, once China had stepped back as a credit provider. The risk of not recovering everything it had borrowed meant that Russia acted through Rosneft, benefiting from trading up to 80 per cent of the country's oil. However, US sanctions finally forced the departure of the Russian energy company, so that in early 2020 Maduro had no other major extra-hemispheric partner to turn to than Iran. The Islamic republic, itself subject to a second sanctions regime, thus returned to the close relationship it had maintained with Venezuela in the first period of international punishment, cultivated by the Chávez-Ahmadinejad tandem.
This Iranian presence is closely watched by the United States (coinciding with a deployment of the Southern Command in the Caribbean), which is always alert to any boost that Hezbollah - an Iranian proxy - might receive in the region. In fact, 2019 marked an important leap in the disposition of Latin American countries against this organisation, with several of them classifying it as a terrorist organisation for the first time. Argentina, Paraguay, Colombia and Honduras approved such a declaration, following the 25th anniversary in July of the AMIA bombing attributed to Hezbollah. Brazil and Guatemala pledged to do so shortly. Several of these countries have drawn up lists of terrorist organisations, which allows them to pool their strategies.
The destabilisation of the region by status in Venezuela has a clear manifestation in the reception and promotion of Colombian guerrillas in that country. issue In August, former FARC leader Iván Márquez and some other former leaders announced, presumably from Venezuelan territory, their return to arms. Both this dissident core of the FARC and the ELN had begun to consolidate at the end of the year as Colombian-Venezuelan groups, with operations not only in the Venezuelan border area, but also in the interior of the country. Both groups together have some 1,700 troops in Venezuela, of which almost 600 are Venezuelan recruits, thus constituting another shock force at Maduro's service.
Russia's exit from Venezuela comes at a time when Moscow is apparently less active in Latin America. This is certainly the case in the field of arms sales. Russia, which had become a major exporter of military equipment to the region, has seen its sales decline in recent years. While during the golden decade of the commodity boom several countries spent part of their significant revenues on arms purchases (which also coincided with the spread of the Bolivarian tide, better linked to Moscow), the collapse in commodity prices and some governmental changes have meant that in the 2015-2019 period Latin America is the destination of only 0.8 per cent of Russia's total arms exports. The United States has regained its position as the largest seller to the rest of the continent.
Spain occupies a prominent position in the arms market, as the seventh largest exporter in the world. However, it lags behind in the preferences of Latin American countries, to which it sells less defence materiel than it would be entitled to in terms of the overall volume of trade it maintains with them. Nevertheless, the level of sales increased in 2019, after a year of particularly low figures. In the last five years, Spain has sold 3.6% of its global arms exports to Latin America; in that period, its main customers were Mexico, Ecuador, Brazil, Peru and Colombia.
Better military equipment might suggest greater participation in UN peacekeeping missions, perhaps as a way of keeping an army active in a context of a lack of regional deployments. However, of the total of 82,480 troops in the fourteen UN peacekeeping missions at the beginning of 2020, 2,473 came from Latin American countries, which represents only 3 per cent of the total contingent. Moreover, almost half of staff was contributed by one country, Uruguay (45.5% of regional troops). Another small country, El Salvador (12%), is the next most committed to missions, while large countries are under-represented, notably Mexico.
In terms of public safety, 2019 brought the good news of a reduction in homicides in Brazil, which fell by 19.2% compared to the previous year, in contrast to what happened in Mexico, where they rose by 2.5%. If in his first year as president, Jair Bolsonaro scored an important achievement, thanks to the management of the super security minister Sérgio Moro (a success tarnished by the increase in accidental deaths in police operations), in his first year Andrés Manuel López Obrador failed to fulfil one of his main electoral promises and was unable to break the upward trend in homicides that has invariably occurred annually throughout the terms of office of his two predecessors.
In terms of the fight against drug trafficking, 2019 saw two particularly positive developments. On the one hand, coca crops were eradicated for the first time in the VRAEM, Peru's largest production area. Given its difficult accessibility and the presence of Shining Path strongholds, the area had previously been excluded from the operations of subject. On the other hand, the change of presidency in Bolivia meant, according to the US, a greater commitment by the new authorities to combat illicit coca cultivation and interdict drug shipments coming from Peru. In recent years Bolivia has become the major cocaine distributor in the southern half of South America, connecting Peruvian and Bolivian production with the markets of Argentina and especially Brazil, and with its export ports to Europe.