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The recent news that Venezuela will be providing Iran with 1 million hectares of arable land for farming draws further concern from the security circles concerned about the Islamic Republic’s growing influence in the Western Hemisphere. That follows a rapidly growing energy collaboration between Caracas and Tehran following the Biden administration’s decision to lift oil sanctions on the Maduro regime. This collaboration includes the boosting of Iran’s crude supply to Venezuela for refining, which gives room for an increased export of Iranian oil for sale – and further undermines the impact of sanctions on Iran’s operations.
There is reason to believe that the recent US government’s foreign policy in Latin America has encouraged a more assertive political and defense cooperation between leftist governments, rogue regimes such as Iran, and its terrorist proxy Hezbullah, as well as assorted criminal enterprises and gangs.
With the election of the FARC-affiliated leftist president of Colombia, Gustavo Petro, the United States is losing one of its few remaining allies in Latin America. US-Colombia cooperation on drug trafficking and counterterrorism strengthened Colombia against cartels, curtailed the Marxist-Leninist FARC rebels (despite the ill-advised peace deal), limited the spread of Hezbullah and its Venezuelan supporters, and bolstered Israel and Colombia’s security relationship.
Colombia helped prevent the assassination of an Israeli businessman by Hezbullah, allegedly planned in retaliation for the liquidation of Qassem Soleimani. But stability in Colombia has always been contingent on US political and security support. The refugee crisis in Venezuela, which brought 3.5 million Venezuelans to Colombia, has resulted in economic concerns and risks of destabilization. Instead of addressing this crisis, the Biden administration has announced the removing of FARC from the Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO) list. Colombia and the European Union withdrew the “terrorist” label from FARC when the peace agreement was first concluded in an effort to encourage integration, but FARC has factionalized into militias that engage in occasional bouts of violence. The US administration’s signal that it no longer considers FARC a security threat could embolden the group’s worst elements. With the newly elected President Petro pursuing the policy of decriminalization of cocaine, many fear that the policy will give cover to drug cartels, and Hezbullah to enter the markets under more official covers and embed themselves further.
The election’s context was one that experts had warned about: despite the formal end of the civil war guerrilla warfare continued. FARC’s political success brought more leftist elements into the government. Far from renouncing violence, many fear that FARC affiliates will instead use it to further spread and entrench the ideology that caused the civil war and that has already resulted in political and economic crises in Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Cuba. All of those countries have several things in common – strong opposition to capitalism, populist distaste for the United States, close relations with narcotraffickers, and alliances with Iran, China, and Russia. The brazen assassination on a Colombian beach of a Paraguayan prosecutor, Marcelo Pecci, known for his tough positions on corruption, gangs, and Hezbullah, may be a harbinger of the chaos that can be expected should leftist policies so destructive to Venezuela take root in Colombia.
That episode, however, did little to change the US government’s haphazard approach to Latin America. Over the various administrations, US role in Latin American has vacillated, with Republicans traditionally emphasizing the security-oriented approach and focusing on countering terrorism and gangs, while the Democratic administrations focusing more on human rights and humanitarian assistance. The Trump administration, for instance, has pushed for Hezbullah’s terrorist designation among both left and right-wing governments in Latin America, and has worked with El Salvador to address the border crisis and to clamp down on the MS-13 entry into the US.
However, none of the US administrations in the past twenty years had developed a broad strategic approach in the Western Hemisphere. Specifically, there has been neither an effort to work with individual target countries to address ingrained economic conditions, political upheavals, and regional problems – such as the impact of Venezuela’s refugee crisis on its neighbors – nor a broader security framework to root out the pro-Iran elements which have grown across the continent thanks to the Cuban/Venezuelan intelligence network, and Iran’s strategic cooperation on economy and defense with Latin American countries. Both Republican and Democrat administrations overall adopted a reactionary approach to specific pet peeves, failing to develop a vision for engagement which would help advance security, prosperity, and peace in the neighboring countries past any specific governments in the US or among their counterparts.
The relative silence after Pecci’s murder is an illustration of the US government’s overall failure to understand that the security concerns in Latin American require a long-term consistent bipartisan approach. As Joseph Humire, Center for Secure Free Society’s specialist on Transnational Threat Networks in the Western Hemisphere, told the author, Iran has been patiently pursuing a systematic ground game through As Joseph Humire, Center for Secure Free Society’s specialist on Transnational Threat Networks in the Western Hemisphere, told the author, Iran has been patiently pursuing a systematic ground game throughout the continent, slowly but surely expanding its reach, through consistent social, cultural, and economic initiatives and the expansion of alliances with the help of its regional proxies and networks, including assorted criminal elements.
Some have compared Pecci’s murder with the analogous killing of Alberto Nisman, an Argentine prosecutor who was investigating the leftist Kirschner government’s cover-up of the Iranian orchestrated AMIA bombing by Hizballah. Since the return of leftists to power in Argentina the investigation into these events has gone cold again – and the Iranian presence has grown stronger. Under the current president, Alberto Fernandez, Argentina claims to crack down on Iranian smuggling, but recently allowed a Venezuelan-flagged flight operated by a US-sanctioned Iranian aviator with at least one senior Tehran official on board to land on its soil.
The US reaction to these incidents has been muted. Low-key policies on leftist politicians in Latin America lie in sharp contrast to the Biden administration’s aggressively interventionist approach with the few remaining right-wing governments, which are also some of the last remaining US allies and opponents of Iran. The White House, which initially embraced the Guatemalan president Alejandro Giammattei, later parted ways and even tried to impede his efforts to replace an official from the prior administration. The attack on Nayib Bukele’s government in El Salvador has been far more extensive, public, and potentially destructive to US security interests in the Western Hemisphere.
After Bukele replaced officials loyal to his leftist predecessors and linked to corruption, the newly inaugurated Biden administration reacted by diverting humanitarian aid to leftist self-styled human rights NGOs connected to opposition parties. A number of these groups were reportedly receiving funding from past lawmakers, who themselves had served in sanctioned governments. The Biden administration also criticized the Bukele government for allegedly engaging in secret negotiations with notorious gangs, such as MS-13, in a scheme that would have reduced violence in exchange for votes for Bukele’s party, “The New Ideas”. The sole source for this accusation were journalists at the left-leaning Salvadoran opposition-alligned publication El Faro.
Subsequent events raised questions. Between November 9th and 11th, El Salvador saw a strange increase in gang-related murders (46 in a 72-hours-period) before going back to zero homicides on November 12th. These numbers were provided by local authorities on Twitter on November 13th. “After 24 hours of having launched #DespliegueNacional, we can announce that we have contained the increase in violence during the past couple of days,” Bukele wrote. Later he used the phrase “old enemies and new allies with external financing” when referring to the situation.
Giovanni Giacalone, senior analyst for the Europe Desk at ITCT, Itstime, and ITSS’ Latin America team, says that “[a]ccording to former ES anti-gang units, Bukele is referring to the right-wing and the left-wing political parties that always provided funds to the Maras [gangs]. Those would be the old enemies.” The cryptic reference to the ‘new allies with external financing’ may reference the flow of weapons into the country that ends up in the hands of these gangsters. Whether that external financing includes Venezuela, whose reach is growing across the region, the US, which has been openly meddling in El Salvador’s domestic affairs while ignoring the flow of weapons into the country, or other parties remains to be investigated.
The Maras appeared to indiscriminately kill people – including vendors, bus passengers, and market-goers. La Prensa Grafica reported that gang members may have been instructed to leave bodies in plain sight. According to Giacalone, these brief spikes of violence usually occur when the Mara leaders want to send a message to the government.
In January 2022, a Canada-based digital rights organization called Citizen Lab produced a report attacking the Bukele government for its alleged violations of journalists’ privacy via use of NSOGroup’s Pegasus software. In its reports, Citizen Lab relies on the Biden administration’s El Faro-based claims of Bukele’s collusion with the gangs, but produces no new evidence. It also does not reveal the technical methodology by which it arrives at its conclusion. The Bukele government rejected these claims stating it had no access to Pegasus and that several of its own officials had also been hacked. Pegasus is only sold to specific state-based actors and is reportedly untraceable. Could Citizen Lab also be one of the “new allies with external funding”?
Curiously, despite this alleged collusion with the gangs and the subsequent cover up, the gangs soon declared open season in El Salvador, challenging the rule of law with unprecedented violence. “The ES government always denied such allegations and its strong actions against the Maras, in prison and on the streets, make it hard to believe that Bukele attempted some secret negotiations,” states Giacalone, adding: “Is it possible that those new allies that Bukele referred to are trying to discredit the government by making the public opinion believe that a deal was made and those sudden peaks are supposed to prove it? If the Mara leaders currently detained had the possibility to order a long-term war against the government, they clearly would. However, we have only seen 72-hours-long peaks of violence, mainly against civilians.”
Bukele reacted by ordering a special operation and rounding up over 47,300 gang members since the state of emergency was approved by El Salvador’s Congress in April, and was extended for the fourth time the week of July 29th, with minimal losses on either side. The Biden administration reacted by issuing multiple statements of concern and sanctioning several officials for “undermining democratic norms” by passing a law preventing the media from sharing gang communications. Ironically, several Salvadorans added to the list are from the previous left-wing administrations, and are being added in connection to their past corruption and embezzlement. While putting political pressure on President Bukele and openly siding with his opponents, the Biden team reportedly shuttered America’s MS-13 task force and embraced open border policies, increasing the flow of fleeing MS-13 members into the country.
The likely impact of such policies by the US is easily predictable. First, coupled with domestic reluctance to hold accused violent criminals without bail, the US government’s tolerance of MS-13 and other gangsters encourages the flow of violent crime into the United States. Second, the political pressure on the Bukele government encourages criminal elements and the groups that cover for them, and strengthens whatever links may exist between the leftist opposition and these elements. It is the opposition, and not Bukele, who stand to benefit the most from gang violence. Externally, foreign entities, such as Iran and Venezuela would also gain from the Bukele administration either falling by popular will, which is unlikely as it has a widely popular mandate and has coordinated all of its activities with its Congress, or was destabilized and made ineffectual thanks to US pressure.
The Northern Triangle is a geographically and geopolitically advantageous area for Iran, Hezbullah, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and the new socialist Honduran administration’s Red-Green Axis. Given its strange passivity in reaction to growing Iranian and Venezuelan interventions across Latin America, and its aggressive position towards Nayib Bukele, one wonders whether a pro-Iran radically leftist Western Hemisphere is in fact the geopolitical goal of the US, or at least, a reality it is willing to tolerate while in pursuit of the Iran deal. One also wonders, why, over the course of the past decades, both Republicans and Democrats have failed to develop an effective outreach and coordination strategy to ensure that the popular will of the voters in Latin American countries and support for improved relations with the US will outlive any particular government of the day. Iran, on the other hand, has been stealthily pursuing that vision of becoming one of the central influencing powers in the Western Hemisphere.
Irina Tsukerman is a human rights and national security lawyer, a geopolitical analyst, President of Scarab Rising, Inc., and the Editor-in-Chief of The Washington Outsider.