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Latin America: A threat to Canada’s security?

Stephen J. Randall

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The recent violence and low voter turnout in Mexico’s July 2010 gubernatorial elections serve to remind us how fragile democratic processes can be in Latin America and how vulnerable politics is to the rising power of narcotics cartels. The Mexican situation is also a critical reminder of the fact that what most challenges Canadian interests in Latin America and the Caribbean are non-traditional security threats, and not the traditional threats posed by states.  

The events in Mexico are one example of a much wider threat from organized crime and the violence it engenders. There have been isolated cases of Canadian tourists who were murdered in Mexico. A few years ago Canadian-operated oil pipelines in Mexico were targeted by terrorists. In the past few months Jamaica was also caught up in a major military effort to suppress organized crime in Kingston. Central America has seen rising levels of violence in recent years, much of it associated with organized criminal groups that have spread into many parts of the United States as well as some Canadian cities. Colombia, with which Canada has recently approved a free trade agreement, has been wracked by narcotics-fuelled civil strife for several decades.  

In January this year Canadian emergency forces along with the international community responded swiftly to the devastating earthquake in Haiti which took the lives of more than 200,000 people. Barely a month later Central Chile was hit by an earthquake and tsunami, which brought several million dollars in Canadian humanitarian assistance. 

These are not the kind of developments that either academic analysts or government officials tended to associate with security challenges in the years of the Cold War. However, since 1990, and especially since the 9-11 terrorist attacks on the United States, perceptions of what constitute security challenges have altered. The collapse of the Soviet Union and its significant level of support for Fidel Castro’s government in Cuba contributed to weakening Cuban influence in the region, especially with the end of the Central American crisis in the 1980s. Although there continues to be concern about the threats posed by states, the focus has increasingly been on non-traditional threats and non-state actors. That blend of the traditional and non-traditional was evident in the comments made by Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper during his 2007 tour of several Latin American and Caribbean countries when he identified Canadian policy goals as responding to terrorism and “stopping the spread of nuclear, biological or chemical weapons, bolstering fragile states, helping rebuild societies shattered by chronic conflict, tackling climate change, sustaining and spreading economic growth and prosperity.” The government’s Americas Strategy, launched two years later, was even more explicitly focused on non-traditional security threats: narcotics, organized crime, health pandemics and natural disasters.

What seems evident is that Canada does not face any traditional state-to-state threats in the Americas even if regional security is threatened by the destabilizing impact of tensions between states in the area, such as those between Colombia and Venezuela. Some analysts have suggested that Iran constitutes such a threat in Latin America by exporting terrorism through its support for Hezbollah, particularly in Venezuela, where it is reputed to be tolerated if not encouraged by President Hugo Chávez’s government, as well as in the tri-border area shared by Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay. There has also been some concern about Russia’s enhanced influence in the region. Chávez has provided landing rights for Russian heavy bombers, purchased fighter aircraft from Russia and been granted licence to manufacture AK-47s. There has also been some concern about the significant economic presence in Latin America, again especially in Venezuela, of resource-hungry China, but that presence appears to be exclusively commercial in nature.

Even the insurgent groups, which were so influential during the 1980s and 1990s, Sendero Luminoso and Túpac Amaru in Peru, or the National Liberation Army (ELN) and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), do not possess the influence they once had. Even earlier they lacked the capacity to project their power outside the borders of the country in which they operated. The Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) remains active in southern Mexico but its issues are local as well. 

There is evidence that both Russian organized criminal organizations as well as Middle East terrorists have established links with Mexican narcotics cartels, but this has no connection with state-sponsored terrorism. In the case of Middle Eastern and Mexican groups there is mutual benefit. The Mexican cartels gain access to Middle East narcotics supplies to supplement what they obtain from the Andean region, and the Middle East interests through the Mexicans gain access to narcotics trafficking routes into the United States. The profits generated can then also be used to fund weapons purchases and terrorist activities in the Middle East. Such connections are more indicative of the massive profits to be made from narcotics and weapons trafficking than of any interest on the part of the actors to undermine state authority or to export terrorism into the United States. 

Yet, regardless of intent their actions do undermine state authority, placing more pressure on Canadian immigration and refugee policy in the process, just as the civil conflict in Colombia did in the course of the 1980s and 1990s. Such weak and fragile states, which in some instances lack the resources to respond to either natural disasters or to contain organized criminal activity, place increased strain on Canadian resources. Canada initially had a significant military presence in Haiti under the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) and has continued through the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and a small number of Canadian military officials to contribute to the efforts to enhance the security situation through the training of the Haitian National Police, reinforcing the capacity of the Haitian coast guard to patrol its own shores, improving Haitian border security with the Dominican Republic, and attempting to strengthen Haiti’s justice system.

Canada is thus faced with challenges in the Americas that in large part do not directly threaten Canadian society but rather tax Canadian resources and threaten Canadian interests in the region. The one major exception to that conclusion is organized crime, particularly trafficking in narcotics and small arms, both of which impact Canadians on Canadian soil. It is thus in the Canadian national interest to continue to work with its fellow nations in the Americas to strengthen their capacity to contain the power of criminal organizations. 

Stephen J. Randall is Director of the Latin American Research Centre at the University of Calgary, as well as a Fellow with the Canadian International Council and the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute. blue square


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