October 9, 2001

October 9, 2001 | Executive Summary on Department of Homeland Security

Executive Summary: U.S. Coalition Against Terrorism Should Include Latin America

The September 11 terrorist strikes on New York and Washington have focused America's attention on the Middle East, but a potential source of danger lurks closer to home. Ten of 30 terrorist organizations operating worldwide, including one linked to Osama bin Laden, are located or operate in Latin America. So far, most of their violence has been directed within the region, but it could easily migrate to the United States.

Accordingly, Washington needs a Latin America policy that strengthens U.S. intelligence collection in the region, develops a cooperative defense strategy among regional allies, revitalizes weak economies to sustain counterterrorism programs, promotes the rule of law, and denies support to governments that help terrorists.

Nature of the Threat .
Despite the fact that democracy has largely replaced dictatorships in 21 out of 23 neighboring nations, strong democratic institutions and truly free markets have hardly had time to take root. Terrorists can take advantage of this to expand, especially where law enforcement is weak. Three types of terrorist activity are currently manifested in the following countries.

  • Cuba is a totalitarian dictatorship that actively assists international terrorists and is categorized as a "state sponsor" of terrorism by the U.S. Department of State. From the 1960s to the 1980s, it trained and armed Latin American insurgents. Today, it has relations with other state sponsors and has its own potential offensive capabilities in electronic and biological warfare.

  • Colombia is a target country that has been plagued by a domestic insurgency for nearly 40 years. Since 1995, the number of rebels has doubled in size and has expanded into half the national territory. Making an estimated $1 billion a year from extortion, kidnapping, and drug trafficking, they are better financed than Saudi terrorist Osama bin Laden and are linked to international drug traffickers and terrorists, including the Irish Republican Army and Basque separatists.

  • Paraguay is an involuntary host. Its poorly controlled borders with Argentina and Brazil have attracted drug and arms traffickers as well as suspected terrorists. Groups linked to the Egyptian Islamic Group, the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, and the pro-Palestinian HAMAS organizations circulate within a large immigrant community. Hezbollah cells may have played a role in the bomb attacks on Argentina's Jewish community in 1992 and 1994.

Elsewhere, support for terrorism may take the form of tolerance of fugitives hiding within immigrant communities or lax anti-money-laundering laws that prevent tracking the movement of large amounts of questionable cash to help protect terrorist resources. Eighteen Latin American countries have legal sanctions on the laundering of narcotics profits, but only half of them have expanded their statutes to apply them to terrorism.

What the United States Must Do .
The Bush Administration has sent FBI agents to the region to investigate leads related to the September 11 bombings. It also has embraced the 1947 Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance (Rio Treaty), to obtain support for rooting out accomplices in the attack. While these are moves in the right direction, terrorism, like crime, is a long-term problem. The United States must also:

  • Strengthen U.S. intelligence capabilities in the region . President Bush should increase intelligence collection anywhere terrorist groups operate--including Latin America. The United States should make more effective use of such tools as the Financial Crime Enforcement Network (FinCEN) and the Drug Kingpin Act to trace and halt movements of terrorist assets.

  • Build a hemispheric coalition against international crime . The Bush Administration should help U.S. neighbors tighten loose migratory controls, improve police investigative capabilities, and professionalize military intelligence. Further, Washington should regear its Latin American military strategy--cast adrift after the end of the Cold War--to develop protocols to enhance coordination between armed forces and civilians and between allies at the international level.

  • Reinforce fragile economies with free trade . Congress and the White House should extend the Andean Trade Preferences Act, due to expire in December, to bolster the precarious economies of Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru. Next, Congress should give President Bush trade promotion authority (TPA) to support his goal of advancing free markets in Latin America.

  • Support democratic institutions . U.S. advice and scarce assistance dollars should be concentrated on expertise, training, and exchange opportunities to professionalize police, immigration personnel, prosecutors, and judiciaries. Ongoing U.S. Administration of Justice programs that provide such training should be continued and expanded.

  • Deny support to state sponsors of terrorism . The United States should not assist any state sponsor of terrorism or country that maintains friendly ties with terrorist organizations. Because Cuba is still considered a state sponsor, this is not the time to change America's relationship with the island.

Conclusion .
Countries with sagging economies and weak governing institutions are not only potential targets of terrorism, but likely harbors for perpetrators. Overall, the United States should strengthen its intelligence collection in the region. Then it should help develop a framework for Latin American cooperation on regional security, help reform and revitalize weak economies, and support democratic institutions--particularly the rule of law. If the United States fails to act, it will give the green light to terrorists and outlaws to strike stronger alliances. The United States should not allow the focus on the Middle East to divert its attention from such threats on its own doorstep.

Stephen Johnson is Policy Analyst for Latin America in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Stephen Johnson Senior Policy Analyst
The Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy