The Rise and Rise of the Narco Terror Gangs

IDGA Editor

The Andean region is one of three sub-regions in the world designated by the United Nations as "regions under stress," the other two being South West Asia and South East Asia.

The significance of this specification lies in the fact that within these regions criminal networks have become very skilled and exploited the advantages of weaknesses in host countries such as absence of the rule of law, poverty, extreme disparities in wealth distribution, corruption and weak governance structures.

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When drug trafficking on a massive scale as obtains in the Andean region of South America intersects with governance issues and a breakdown in the rule of law, it can pose several challenges, and affected societies inevitably become locked into a vicious cycle whereby social trust is eroded and economic growth is stymied.

Latin America and the Caribbean are beset with prohibitive volumes of cocaine trafficking, organized cartels that are empowered by the trade, the violence associated with illicit commodity flows, and the often deadly competition emanating among rival factions.

The phenomenon has given rise to major security issues for governments of source and transit countries, and more so for the U.S. as a primary destination.

The primary identifiable vectors and arteries of the northward movement of cocaine are:

  • Pacific fishing boats and other marine craft including semi-submersibles particularly destined for Guatemala which supply cocaine to the Cartel del Pacifico.
  • Atlantic go-fasts and other marine craft including semi-submersibles, bound for Honduras, which supply the Cartel del Pacifico and the Zetas.
  • Aircraft departing from the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela and destined for Honduras to supply the Cartel del Pacifica and the Zetas.

Cocaine flows have shifted within the past two decades in response to intensified interdiction efforts of security forces in source and transit countries, working in collaboration with the Drug Enforcement Administration and the U.S. military.

The flows peaked in the 1980s when Colombian traffickers dominated the market and the Caribbean was then the preferred transit area.

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Vigorous law enforcement led to the dismantling of the Cali and Medellin cartels of Colombia and Mexican groups gradually assumed control of the market along the entire trafficking chain.

By the late 1990s, an ever-increasing volume of the drugs was being funneled into the U.S. via the southwestern land border.

Initially, direct shipments were being dispatched to Mexico with stopovers in Central America for refueling. Then from the mid-2000s onward, Central America once more assumed significance and parts of the Caribbean were reactivated.

The Trafficking/Terrorist Nexus

The U.S. Office of the Coordinator of Counter Terrorism noted in its 2012 strategic assessment that:

  • The al Qaeda core under the leadership of al-Zawahiri has been "significantly degraded" as a result of ongoing worldwide efforts against the organization. More specifically Osama bin Laden’s demise was a major milestone in the debilitating of al Qaeda.
  • Further leadership losses have driven al Qaeda affiliates to become more independent and they now set their own goals and targets and explore avenues for funding.
  • Although there are no known cells of either al Qaeda or Hizballah in the Western Hemisphere, sympathizers in Central America and the Caribbean continue to provide financial and ideological support to these and other terrorist groups in the Middle East and South Asia. Additionally, closed source reports disclose that Hizballah has been engaging in fund-raising activities in Venezuela.

In Colombia, the primary source country for the world supply of cocaine, there are three groups that have been designated by the U.S. as "terrorist organizations," and which are known to have galvanized their capabilities by drawing largely upon drug trafficking funds. These are:

  • The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC)
  • The National Liberation Army (ELN)
  • The United Self-Defences of Colombia (AUC)

At least two of these groups are engaged in extremely heavy drug trafficking – the FARC and the AUC - with the former organization netting in roughly $500,000 million annually from drug sales in order to fund their terrorist activities.

Their known maneuvers include launching mortars at police stations and military installations; placing explosive devices near roads and pathways; engaging in sniper attacks, ambushes and infrastructural attacks on oil and gas pipelines, and kidnapping high-profiled figures.

The State Department reported in 2012 that there was a 52 percent overall increase in attacks with over 700 reported incidents in the first three quarters of that year. On the other hand, kidnappings have declined markedly by roughly 93 percent between 2000-2010.

Implications of Austerity Measures in U.S. and E.U.

U.S. policy and alliance arrangements in the drug war include pooling of assets and intelligence and information sharing buttressed by its basing footprints throughout the Inter American system. However, austerity measures currently resorted to by many governments impel the need for out-of-the-box approaches in many areas, including the selectivity of troop deployment.

SOUTHCOM is one of several combatant commands with geographically determined responsibilities, enjoying coverage of roughly 23.2 million square kilometers, and with a total of 32 nations falling within its radar. Of this number 13 are Central and South American countries; the remaining are located in the Caribbean Basin and include U.S. and European (British, Dutch and French) territories. SOUTHCOM accomplishes its mission through multiple service components: U.S. Army South; Air Forces Southern; U.S. Naval Forces South Command; U.S. Fourth Fleet; U.S. Marine Corps Forces South; Special Operations Command South; Joint Task Force Bravo; Joint Task Force Guantanamo; Joint Inter Agency Task Force South, complemented by humanitarian and disaster relief mandates.

A recent RAND review reported that several NATO members are gradually reaching the point at which their remaining land, naval and air elements will be considerably reduced.

This implies that in the foreseeable future there will be tremendous challenges for external missions, as is now the case for those overseas territories requiring a commitment of force or a rotation base of units and personnel to sustain an operation in the southern geographic approaches to the homeland.

Britain’s downsizing of its armed forces, for example, included the decommissioning in 2010 of the Royal Navy’s flagship air carrier the HMS Ark Royal. Likewise France, which has fielded sizeable air and ground forces in Afghanistan, is likely to impose defense cuts in the face of mounting budget pressures.

The French government has resolved to protect its major weapons programs by stretching out procurement even at the price of inefficiencies and higher unit costs.

The Dutch armed forces are similarly being reduced to a point at which they are likely to have only marginal capacity. Traditional combinations of maritime forces, which were well suited to operating in coastal waters and which are still presently in high demand in the NATO alliance, are being targeted for reduction.

And whereas the U.S. holds an expectation that NATO allies will shoulder more of the burden for managing crises in Europe and its periphery, the U.S. will still be engaged politically and militarily in many of these crises, as well as in its proactive campaigns in the Asia Pacific widening orbit.

All of this signals that with the depletion of assets in the Americas we are now required to do more with less. In response, this writer advocates a three-pronged strategy: firstly, strengthening partnerships and coalitions through capacity building to facilitate interoperability; secondly, reinforcing confidence building measures among the military, enforcement and intelligence communities in order to sustain the healthy sharing and exchanges of information and arrive at a common threat assessment picture; and thirdly building a more robust regional IT capability to support these efforts.

This strategy could be buttressed by high-impact tactical measures that incorporate:

  1. Pooling and sharing resources via joint missions. This measure would reduce costs and heighten synergies.
  2. Leapfrogging which implies investing in capabilities that are aligned to rapidly evolving technologies. The deployment of drones and the crucial transitioning to cloud computing modes are illustrations of this approach.
  3. Invigorating coalitions and Visiting Forces missions to promote improved interoperability while maintaining a political posture of cooperation.
  4. Honoring already existing cooperation agreements that are politically and legally binding. These would include the Article provisions of the 1988 Vienna Convention; the 2000 United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime and its three related Protocols; and the Cooperative Maritime Counter Narcotics Agreements vested with operational provisions for "shiprider," "shipboarding," "pursuit," and "entry to investigate."

The foregoing instruments map formalized arrangements among signatories for multilateral interdiction, provide for the employment of "special investigative techniques" (examples being the use of electronic surveillance and controlled deliveries to expedite interdiction), and facilitate judicial cooperation and mutual assistance in criminal matters - measures that have historically accrued a track record of successful seizures and extraditions.

Some of the issues raised in this article will be discussed at IDGA's Counter Narco-Terrorism and Drug Interdiction event in September. For full details, go to