Future Challenges to Secure Democracy in Latin America

Report Americas

Future Challenges to Secure Democracy in Latin America

May 3, 1999 16 min read
The Mike DeWine

When one thinks about Latin America, the threat of attack using weapons of mass destruction does not ordinarily come to mind. In fact, the threats in this region--while very significant--are not the traditional arms proliferation threats found in places like the Middle East and South Asia. These nontraditional threats, however, are significant and very real in Latin America. They must not be ignored.

My interest in Latin America is not a recent development. In the 1980s, when I was a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, it seemed that the most important issues we dealt with in that committee involved our neighbors to the immediate south. I supported President Ronald Reagan's efforts in Central America to combat communism--particularly in Nicaragua and El Salvador. I traveled to both countries several times, and called for free and democratic elections and economic reforms in the region.

We fought hard for democracy in Central America. And, thanks in large part to President Reagan's leadership, we won.

Look at the key facts: In 1981, 16 of the region's 33 countries were governed by authoritarian regimes--either of the left or the right. Today, all but one--Cuba--have democratically elected heads of government. That political transformation is historic. There is no doubt that our policy efforts paid off.

Since coming to the Senate in 1995, my interest in Latin America has only deepened. The war against illegal drugs, the influx of immigrants from Central and South America, and fluctuations in economic and trade opportunities throughout the Americas all have led me to examine more closely the economic and political development of our southern neighbors.

With the wars of the 1980s now over, the region seems relatively at peace. But the successes--won at a huge cost in national treasure and lost lives--must not be squandered. There is still much work that needs to be done.

The hard, day-to-day work of democracy is not just holding elections. To institutionalize and preserve democracy and to nurture prosperity requires effective responses to the current threats and challenges facing the region, including corruption, criminal activity, drug-trafficking, and violence. Democracies and free markets are strengthened not just when votes are cast or goods purchased, but also when those who violate the laws are arrested and successfully prosecuted.

This "next generation" of issues--building institutions in Latin America to strengthen democracy--is absolutely vital. Addressing and overcoming the current threats in the region is crucial if we want to address these long-term issues effectively.

While most people might reflexively conclude that weapons of mass destruction are not present in this region, I would ask them to think of the meaning of these words beyond the nuclear context. I believe one can argue that there is one significant weapon of mass destruction--a weapon that already has penetrated our society and caused significant damage to lives, entire communities, and even countries themselves. I am talking about illegal drugs. We can be thankful that countries like Iraq, North Korea, and Communist China have not used a weapon of mass destruction as we know the term. The same cannot be said, however, about drugs. Illegal drugs cost our country more than $110 billion a year, and resulted in more than 14,000 deaths in 1996.

And while the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) struggles with the disintegration of Kosovo in Yugoslavia, another disintegration is eating away in our very own hemisphere--and it is going practically unnoticed by the Clinton Administration.


More than 38,000 Colombians have been killed in its 34-year civil war. According to the State Department, 300,000 Colombians were internally displaced last year. Now compare this with the situation in Kosovo, where 230,000 people were internally displaced during the same period of time--and before NATO took action.

The United States has a clear national interest in the future stability of Colombia. We all know that Colombia is the leading producer of cocaine and is becoming a significant producer of heroin. What few people realize, however, is that last year's two-way trade between the United States and Colombia was more than $11 billion. In fact, the United States is Colombia's number-one trading partner, and Colombia is the fifth largest market for U.S. exports in the region. Colombia also is an important source of foreign oil.

In spite of this mutually beneficial partnership, the United States has not devoted the level of time and resources needed to assist this important democratic partner as it struggles with drug producers, violent criminal and paramilitary organizations, and guerrilla insurgents. In fact, in December 1998, a White House official told The Washington Post that Colombia "poses a greater immediate threat to us than Bosnia did, yet it receives almost no attention."

The deteriorating situation in Colombia has had a substantial effect on our country. In late 1997, the State Department added the FARC2 to its list of terrorist organizations. In January 1999, guerrillas announced that all U.S. military and law enforcement personnel in Colombia would be considered legitimate targets for death or capture. Last month, the FARC viciously murdered three U.S. human rights workers. This horrifying execution met with no reaction from the Clinton Administration.

These are significant issues that have a direct impact on our country that should not be ignored. The future of Colombia as a unified country and the stability of an entire continent are at risk.

We cannot ignore the clear connection between the anti-government elements and organized criminal and drug-trafficking organizations. The FARC and ELN guerrillas are criminals and terrorists who allegedly make between $500 million and $1 billion a year, primarily in drug-trafficking and in such other illegal activities as kidnapping and extortion. According to the Colombian Finance Ministry, the illegal trade in Colombia brings in between $3 billion and $5 billion a year, making it Colombia's top export earner.

Organized crime links have long been suspected. The chief of the Colombian National Police, General José Serrano, has reported that the FARC has completed guns-and-cash-for-drugs deals with organized criminal groups in Russia, Ukraine, Chechnya, and Uzbekistan. With what seems an endless supply of unlimited resources, some Colombia watchers estimate that the FARC and ELN may have control of about half of Colombia's national territory.

Just as astonishing are the paramilitary organizations that have a large presence in Colombia and also pose a significant threat to that country.

The balkanization of Colombia into politically and socially unstable mini-states is a significant threat to this region. Colombia is shaping up to be the Balkan problem of the Americas.

Colombian President Andres Pastrana--who ran for office on a peace platform--is trying to make peace at all costs with Marxist rebels, who have little incentive to agree to any negotiation. Think about it for a minute: Why would the rebels agree to any peace agreement that could result in their losing any or all of the enormous proceeds they make from their illegal activities? Throughout these negotiations, the FARC has continued to assault and kill dozens of Colombian military and police.

The current prospects for peace talks are dismal. The sad reality is that if Pastrana were to accept the demands of the FARC and ELN for political and territorial autonomy, Colombia would start to splinter into Balkan-like factions. The effects of this outcome would be increased paramilitary violence and increased regional instability. What would the United States do then?

There has been much concern that the current civil war in Colombia could spill over into neighboring countries. One is Venezuela, where President Hugo Chavez allegedly has had contacts with ELN rebel forces in the past. A spillover into Venezuela would be disastrous for the United States because Venezuela is our number-one supplier of foreign oil. The guerrilla conflict could spread also to Panama, where an election will be held in May 1999 that the son of former dictator General Omar Torrijos is expected to win. Let me remind you that Panama currently has no military, and our total U.S. troop presence is scheduled to depart Panama by the end of this year. In fact, we are about to lose Howard Air Force Base in Panama in a matter of weeks.

The drug threat alone has forced me to become directly involved. I drafted legislation last year called the Western Hemisphere Drug Elimination Act: a $2.6 billion, three-year, counter-drug initiative designed to provide needed resources to fight the drug problem at the source and transit countries. This bill was passed into law. And this year, I introduced S. 5, the Drug Free Century Act, which is the necessary next step. We must help our neighbors to fight this "weapon of mass destruction" both at home and throughout the region before it becomes an even bigger plague in Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati.

Terrorism. Let me spend a few moments talking about some threats to the region that are launched from other parts of the world. Middle East terrorism, to take a key example, is not new in Latin America. The Lebanon-based Hezbollah has been blamed for the car bombings of the Israeli Embassy in Argentina in 1992 and the Jewish Community Center in Buenos Aires two years later.

And while these events may be labeled sporadic and limited, The Miami Herald recently reported the arrests in Uruguay and Ecuador of two alleged Egyptian terrorists who are wanted in Egypt as senior members of Gamaa Islamiyya, a radical Islamic group that tried to assassinate President Hosni Mubarak in 1995. This group has claimed responsibility for several recent attacks on tourists. In fact, Gamaa Islamiyya belongs to the umbrella group that Osama bin Laden created last year, the International Islamic Front to Fight Crusaders and Jews.

These arrests come at a time in which U.S. officials have expressed increased fear that terrorists associated with bin Laden are preparing another attack against American targets.


Another major threat is home-grown. While tremendous progress has been made in the past decade to consolidate democracies in the region, government corruption continues to tarnish prospects for prosperity and security.

Mexico. Let's start with Mexico. Over the years, critics have been outspoken on the subject of widespread corruption within the Mexican government and its failure to prosecute adequately high-level officials charged with corruption and drug-trafficking crimes.

A few weeks before the Clinton Administration's announcement of drug-certified countries in 1997, General Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo, head of the National Drug Control Institute, was removed from his post and charged with accepting bribes from drug lord Amado Carillo Fuentes. Six months before that, the Mexican Attorney General had dismissed over 1,250 federal law enforcement officials in anti-corruption shake-ups.

In fact, when I visited Mexico, senior officials there described to me the level of corruption within the judicial system. They told me about the offers their law enforcement officials were receiving from drug cartels in Tijuana--$1 million a month to look the other way.

There have been more recent cases of alleged corruption and drug-trafficking within the Mexican government. Recently, an arrest warrant was issued for Mario Villanueva, Governor of the state of Quintana Roo, who reportedly has been protecting the transit of drugs through the Yucatan region on behalf of the Juárez cartel. This episode is considered one of the biggest narcotics corruption cases in Mexican history because the arrest warrant was not exclusive to Villanueva. The warrant also included the arrest of more than 100 public officials for their involvement with the drug cartels in this Mexican state. In the past few days, the media have reported that Villanueva--who has been in hiding since the arrest warrant was issued--is possibly in Cuba.

Mexico is not alone. Corruption and mismanagement continue to plague attempts to establish lasting political reforms in Latin America, particularly in South America.

Paraguay. Paraguay has been labeled the most corrupt country in Latin America. In its largest-ever analysis of corruption, a group called Transparency International recently ranked Paraguay 84th out of 85 countries--doing only slightly better than Cameroon. (Honduras ranked 83rd out of 85. In fact, 14 Latin American countries had a score of less than 5 out of a perfect 10 on this measure.)

Many consider Paraguay the most politically unstable country in South America's Southern Cone, and democracy did indeed have a very close call there within the past month. The Vice President was assassinated. President Raul Cubas went into exile after he was impeached by the House of Representatives for alleged corruption and mismanagement, including his decision to release former coup plotter General Lino Oviedo from jail.

While there was civil strife during the ordeal, the transfer of power was nonviolent. In fact, Paraguay's young democratic institutions--the Congress and the Supreme Court--ousted President Cubas. Fortunately, the military stayed in the barracks. This is significant progress for a country that endured military dictatorship for 34 years until very recent times. But the new President will have to deal with the same problems that plagued the Cubas Administration: widespread corruption, rising unemployment, and an unpredictable economy.

Venezuela. Venezuela continues to be plagued by widespread inefficiency and corruption, especially in the judicial sector. We should not take lightly recent news reports that President Chavez has stepped up his rhetoric, suggesting he may dissolve Parliament and take actions against the Supreme Court if the policies he wants are not implemented. President Chavez has also reinstated military officers into the army command structure who were involved in the 1992 failed coup attempt that he led. Finally, he has openly demonstrated his admiration for Fidel Castro and his desire to maintain very close relations with Cuba. The United States must keep a close eye on Venezuela, particularly considering our key strategic interest in our oil supply. Venezuela is a vital national security interest of the United States, and we ignore it at our peril.


Having outlined some of the problems that face this region, it is important that we talk about solutions as well. After all, Washington is notorious for talking about problems without solutions, and sometimes, incidentally, for proposing solutions where there is no problem.

As I mentioned at the beginning of my remarks, the difficult day-to-day work of democracy is not holding elections. Yes, tremendous progress has been made. But the next steps will be just as difficult. The continued strength of market-driven democracies depends in large measure on how well countries face these current threats and challenges. The fundamental issue is the rule of law--specifically, the need to have strong and efficient judiciaries. An effective judiciary is absolutely crucial for a stable society. Without it, further social and economic progress would be very difficult, if not impossible.

The challenge we face today is that Latin American judiciaries are largely outdated, inefficient, and corrupt. Without serious reform to the judiciary systems in these countries, there is no guarantee of cementing the progress we have made in building democracy in the region. On the contrary, we face a significant erosion of our efforts. If we allowed this to continue, it could become disastrous.

Take, for example, the Central American countries that just endured Hurricane Mitch.

Hurricane Mitch provided a pointed reminder of how fragile--and reversible--the progress can be. History offers us a sober reminder that from misery, despair, and joblessness spring oppression. We must not forget that the seeds of the 1979 Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua sprouted from the wreckage of the 1972 Managua earthquake. People who cannot feed their families will turn to any source for assistance. Unless we work closely with the people of Central America in the cause of progress, bad things will happen. The pressure to emigrate to the United States will increase. Colombia's drug-traffickers will step in with needed money. And anti-democratic elements will certainly exploit the devastation to serve their own interests.

In the countries I have visited in the region, Latin American government officials have been very frank in admitting to the corruption in their judiciaries and the need for serious reform. In some cases, these officials were seeking our assistance.

So why should we in the United States care? Again, we should care for the very same reasons that prompted us to make a large investment in the fight against communism in the 1980s. Democracies cannot thrive, and economies cannot expand, without law enforcement officers and judges committed to law and order. It's that simple. Our work in helping our Latin American neighbors become stable market-driven democracies is only half done. It is now time for the United States to start the second generation of the fight for freedom in Latin America.

To ignore this issue would have a very serious adverse impact on our country in such areas as trade, immigration, drugs, and organized crime.

We need a new hemispheric push for the rule of law. Let me stress that the "rule of law" should be neither a Republican nor a Democratic issue; it should be a central foreign policy interest for both political parties. The United States already is investing time and money in a program that literally exports our principles of law enforcement--the training of police in Central America through the International Criminal Investigative Training Assistance Program, known as ICITAP. This is an important program, but it addresses only half the battle. A well-trained police force means little or nothing if corrupt and incompetent prosecutors and judges cannot prosecute and sentence criminals.

The U.S. government already has worked to help to strengthen some aspects of the judiciary systems in Latin America. But we have a great deal farther to go, and the stakes are high. That's why we need to establish clear goals and make a coordinated, systematic effort as soon as possible. If we fail to focus on this matter, we will miss a great opportunity to build on the foundation we worked so hard to establish. Even worse, we put this very foundation itself at risk of collapse. That is why the United States should assume a leadership role in helping to develop Latin American judiciary systems.

I plan to take a leading role in this matter. Last spring, I sent a letter to the General Accounting Office requesting that it conduct a study of U.S. efforts to improve the administration of justice in developing countries. Thirteen other Members of Congress joined me in signing this letter. Specifically, I am searching for ways in which the U.S. government can improve, and possibly expand, our current judicial assistance program. The GAO will be presenting its report to Congress, to include its findings and suggestions, in the very near future.


The stakes in Latin America, frankly, are the same as those in Kosovo, with the exception that the struggle in Latin America is closer to our shores. In Kosovo, we are confronted with a crisis that poses a serious challenge to the mission and the survival of the NATO alliance. In Latin America, we are confronted with a very similar choice: Will we allow Latin America to export its problems to us--or will we instead take the initiative, and export some proven solutions to Latin America?

This is the question that will confront our foreign policy throughout the next century. We all acknowledge that the United States is not the world's policeman. But I think we should look at global instability--the poverty and repression that afflict so many countries--the way Abraham Lincoln looked at slavery in the 1850s.

When Lincoln was running for President before the Civil War, he knew that abolishing slavery by fiat was still an unrealistic dream. But he still realized that he needed to do everything in his power to ensure that slavery was on the long-term road to extinction.

Those of us here today know in our hearts that if we could create democracy, prosperity, and universal respect for human rights by the mere stroke of a pen, we would do it. But we can't. So we have to be on the alert--ever watchful--to make sure that we miss no opportunity to push the borders of poverty and intolerance farther and farther away from our shores, until we know that they, too, no longer exist anywhere on earth.

That is the challenge--and the opportunity--that confronts U.S. foreign policy toward Latin America.

The Honorable Mike DeWine, a Republican, represents Ohio in the U.S. Senate. He is a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.



1. Presented at the third annual conference on Organized Crime, Government Corruption, and the Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction, co-sponsored by The Heritage Foundation and the Caucus on International Narcotics, on April 15, 1999.

2. The FARC, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, is one of two Marxist guerrilla organizations in the country. The other is the National Liberation Army (ELN).


The Mike DeWine