The Real Issue on the Latin American Landscape
My colleague Andrew Cochran’s post on the threat (or not) to the Panama Canal seems to me to miss the larger picture of the threat from Latin America.
That threat is contained in the recent statements by Adm. James Stavridis, head of the US Southern Command at a recent CSIS conference.
Stavridis warned that “the connectivity between narcoterrorism and Islamic radical terrorism could be disastrous in this region. What I worry about in this region with outside actors coming into it is the potential for those streams to cross, if you will, for the fuel of narcoterrorism to become engaged in Islamic radicalism here in the Americas.”
That is it in a nutshell. It is the Iran-Venezuela-Nicaragua nexus, built on a foundation of already-existing Hezbollah and Hamas operatives who have been economically active in the region for decades.
These groups have primarily focused on the laundering and procurement of cash for their home groups, not carrying out direct acts of terrorism against targets in this hemisphere.
That does not mean that that will continue to be the case. Look at the attacks on Jewish targets in Argentina a decade ago to see how the Iran/Hezbollah connection can go operational with devastating consequences.
What has changed, with advent the Chavez/Ahmadinejad alliance, is that Iran (and by extension Hezbollah) now have numerous state platforms from which to launch attacks in this hemisphere, should it be judged to be necessary. The trigger would likely be military action against Iran.
In this context, I think, the potential threat against targets like the Panama Canal need to be reassessed. There may not be a huge and quantifiable threat at this time. But it is unlikely there are not contingency plans drawn up for action if action is deemed necessary.
Given Iran’s official entree now in Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia and Nicaragua, it is highly unlikely they want or can abstain from making serious mischief.
Chavez has the money, and exercises a great deal of influence with Colombia’s FARC rebels. The FARC, in turn has extensive access to the drug trade, something Hezbollah knows a great deal about and can benefit from.
Nicaragua is a key part of the pipeline that moves illicit goods and services (from people to drugs and weapons) to and from the Mexican corridor into the United States.
That, to me, is a disturbing constellation of realities on the ground. There almost always is a connectivity among different illicit groups operating in the same region. There are few borders among them, in part because, even as they vie with each other on some issues, they can and do use each other extensively.
This to me is the broader threat that can and likely will pose a threat to the Canal and other areas. In a narrow sense, the threat can be seen as overblown. In the rapidly-changing Latin American context, however, I would argue that the threat is real.