Border zones and insecurity in the Americas

Border zones are potential incubators of conflict. Criminal gangs exploit weak state presence to forge a parallel state and prosecute their criminal enterprises sustained by fear, violence and brutality.

Border zones are incubators of criminal instability and violence. Weak state presence and the lucrative drugs trade is combining to challenge state sovereignty in acute ways. Consider Mexico, where the northern frontier with the US and southern border with Guatemala are contested zones. The bloody center of gravity of Mexico’s drug cartels is the ‘plazas’, the drug smuggling corridors that link the borders.

It is in the ‘plazas’ that violence is the highest, as cartels struggle for control of the most lucrative routes and federal police and military struggle to impose order and eradicate corruption. The tenacity of the fighting and the utter horror and barbarity of the violence signify the value of the terrain to the cartels – and the continuing importance of borders in the Americas as sites of conflict and illicit exchange.

While some have fretted that these zones could harbor jihadi terrorists, the real danger lies in the violence produced by bloody competition over these lucrative areas and the spread of criminal reach and power throughout the state and across frontiers.

Fighting for the frontier

When most think of conflict and border zones, they imagine territorial disputes such as India and Pakistan’s recurring battles over Kashmir or less serious tug-of-wars such as Japan and South Korea’s contestation of the Liancourt Rocks. To be sure, there have been territorial disputes, such as Nicaragua’s dispute with Colombia over several islands, or Colombia’s conflicts with Venezuela and Ecuador over narco-guerrillas operating from their territory. Yet, as former FRIDE researcher Ivan Briscoe argues, the biggest sources of violent conflict has been the erosion of government control over border zones and the rise of criminal groups, gangs, and cartels in loosely governed zones (see Ivan Briscoe, “Trouble on the Borders: Latin America’s New Conflict Zones,” Madrid: FRIDE, July 2008).

Discourse over spaces of loose governmental authority has generally been dominated by a focus on terrorism. As such, most American security publications discussing Latin America have focused on the Tri-Border region on the Paraguayan border, a haven for money laundering and middle eastern groups such as Hezbollah. Ciudad de Este, the Tri-Border region’s main city, has appeared in many American analyses of Latin American security. The focus on foreign presence, while a serious issue, obscures the local roots of Latin American insecurity in frontier zones.

As Briscoe argues, “violence and institutional corrosion have plagued as never before the frontier between Mexico and the United States, while Guatemala’s eastern border region and Colombia’s frontiers with Ecuador, Venezuela and Brazil witness these countries’ highest murder rates, as well as territorial capture by armed groups and narco-trafficking networks.” Most importantly, he notes that government authority in these zones has been ‘hollowed out’ and replaced by evolving global-local networks of criminal authority. The population often grasps which way the wind blows and turn to other sources of informal law and power.

Some ninety percent of South American cocaine (up from 55 percent in 2007) currently transits the Mexico-Central American Corridor. A side effect of this trade is the risk of Central American states being besieged by the violence and corrupting influences of networked transnational criminal actors. Gangsters are exploiting weak state presence in border zones to transform drug trafficking operations by exploiting a variety of “parallel states” ranging from stateless territories (criminal enclaves) and mafia-dominated municipalities linked to the global criminal economy to build political and economic muscle.

Fragile, ungoverned spaces and borders

Border-zones are natural transit corridors. As enforcement pressures in neighboring states increase, the entire range of criminal activity is also prone to spill over. Border zones, such as Guatemala’s Petén province, and sparsely policed areas like the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua are incubators of instability and ideal venues for refueling, repackaging product, and warehousing drug stockpiles. While this was first realized in Guatemala and Honduras, El Salvador, Panama and Costa Rica, indeed all Central America, are currently at risk of being caught in the ‘cross-border’ spillover of Mexico’s drug wars. Controlling these border zones is key to transnational gangs and cartels. Los Zetas, for example, not only train in sparsely populated border areas, they seek to sustain military control of the frontier and adjoining terrain on both sides of Mexico’s southern border between Chiapas and Guatemala.

Informal economies have sprung up around Latin American border zones. The breakdown of government authority in these zones is not necessarily the consequence of globalization but globalization impacting traditionally loose frontier economies that situate themselves as in-between zones for illicit goods from a common regional network. This is not so much a ‘decline of the state’ situation as much as a transition into a different form of state power distinguished by the linkage of traditional informal networks in the region with globalized forms of illicit commerce. Because of the lucrative nature of these zones, they tend to be magnets for conflict. Briscoe notes “The homicide rates of the Caribbean and Central America, the world’s highest, are indicative of a correlation between trafficking density and chronic violence.”

This isn’t to say that the state doesn’t occasionally contest criminal power. Mexico’s government has for nearly three years waged a ferocious, heavily militarized war against drug cartels. In turn, they have suffered heavy losses among soldiers, police, and civil servants. Mexican border cities eerily resemble scenes from Iraq, with ‘surges’ of heavily armed soldiers, special operations raids on cartel safehouses, and ferocious cartel retaliations (see Hal Brands, Mexico’s Narco-Insurgency and U.S. Counterdrug Policy, Carlisle Barracks: Strategic Studies Institute, May 2009).

In Brazil, police have become increasingly militarized. Policing against criminal gangs in major Brazilian cities is carried out by heavily armed civilian and military police trained in urban warfare techniques. As a Joint Special Operations University (JSOU) monograph noted, detailed action against criminal areas is carried out in the manner of classical ‘enemy-centric’ counterinsurgency, with units thinking principally in terms of the classic trio of isolation of the area, movement to contact, and the conquest of key points (See Alvaro de Souza Pinheiro, Irregular Warfare: Brazil’s Fight Against Urban Guerrillas, Hurlburt Field: Joint Special Operations University, 2009). While stabilizing high intensity violence and criminal insurgency requires advanced tactics and operational concepts, these must not routinely replace community policing which is required to sustain legitimacy. Yet, Brazil’s threat is not purely criminal gangs — and vigilante militias —challenging the state in the favelas. The expanding reach of criminal gangs in loosely controlled rural enclaves linked to urban and global economic circuits fuelling cross-border gangs is a dire potential.

Colombia has, for a long time, sought to suppress the FARC’s coca cultivation with a determined counterinsurgency campaign designed to stamp out production. As Briscoe notes, this really only displaced drug networks to safer redoubts beyond the striking range of Colombian military units. And, as the ‘bacrims’ (bandes criminals emergentes) demonstrate, new criminal enterprises frequently emerge to fill the vacuum in criminal opportunity space. As successful as Colombia’s President Uribe has been in reducing FARC power, it is unlikely to completely eradicate non-state drug networks as long as they can take refuge in remote or politically sensitive areas. In this way, countries such as Ecuador and Venezuela serve as the South American equivalent of Pakistan’s frontier regions.

The need for multi-lateral regional security coordination

In general, military responses while effective in responding to short-term lack of order, tend to be ineffective over the long-term. This is due to criminal penetration of security networks, endemic corruption, the complicity of civil servants and business figures with criminals, human rights abuses against civilians, and the intrusion of regional politics into domestic disputes over guerrillas and criminal violence. Moreover, it is commonly misunderstood that cartels and criminals are the sole producers of violence and disorder. Instead, they are in many cases the result of larger political-economic dynamics and will remain so as long as state and international organs do not address those dynamics.

Additionally, there is no one single cross-border criminal threat. Instead, Latin America is criss-crossed by a mosaic of hundreds of individual disputes, gangs, cartels, criminal insurgencies, and corrupt government-criminal networks all competing for power over lucrative terrain. The bloody competition between these groups is as big a threat (if not more) than the conflicts between criminals and embattled municipal and federal governments. Civilians caught in the middle of these disputes, as well as overly blunt military or police response, are increasingly casualties of war.

As Briscoe notes, there is a need for a non-militarized focus on regional security, embracing growing regional powers such as Brazil as well as aspiring powers such as Venezuela. Regional security coordination could enable police and justice sector reform, including the rise of networked policing, prevention, and rehabilitation policies designed to suppress criminal violence, stabilize ungoverned regions, and mitigate social problems that produce gang violence.

These networked efforts must go beyond a counter-drug focus to embrace a counter-violence approach that addresses the full range of transnational organized crime: drug, small arms, and human trafficking, money laundering, and gangs. They must become ‘community’ not ‘enforcement’ centric and emphasize building and nurturing community institutions that contribute to economic opportunity and leverage government legitimacy. These approaches must be carefully vetted to avoid community institutions being captured by criminal syndicates and gangs. Intelligence cooperation and multinational investigations are also crucial to crushing transnational criminal syndicates whose links stretch across the Americas.

Without a true regional consensus for action, border zones in the region’s increasingly fragile states will continue to be exploited by gangsters and the body count —unfortunately— will continue to grow.

About the authors
John P. Sullivan is a career police officer. He currently serves as a lieutenant with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department where he is assigned to the Emergency Operations Bureau. He is also a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies on Terrorism (CAST). His research focuses on counterinsurgency, intelligence, terrorism, transnational gangs, and urban operations. He is coeditor of Countering Terrorism and WMD: Creating a Global Counter-Terrorism Network (Routledge, 2006).
Adam Elkus is an analyst specializing in foreign policy and security. He is currently Associate Editor at Red Team Journal, and his articles have been published in West Point CTC Sentinel, Foreign Policy in Focus, Small Wars Journal and other publications. He blogs at Rethinking Security, Dreaming 5GW, and The Huffington Post. He is currently contributing to the Center for Threat Awareness’ ThreatsWatch project.