Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Internet and Latin America: The Rise of the Virtual World and Emerging Cyber Security Issues

The Internet and Latin America: The Rise of the Virtual World and Emerging Cyber Security Issues
Council on Hemispheric Affairs
December 23, 2011
Originally published in:

Throughout the world, many regions have embraced the internet as a vital communication and business tool, and Latin America has been no exception. While demonstrably the expansion of internet usage has not rivaled that of the United States, Europe, or some Asian states like South Korea and Japan, the growth of the internet in the region continues at a steady tempo. Additionally, we are witnessing a rise in the importance of cyber security as cases of hacking and other cybercrimes proliferate.

Growth of the Internet in Numbers

In terms of numbers, the level of internet use in Latin America is certainly not as widespread as it has been in Europe or other highly developed regions, given constraints such as adverse economic indicators, poverty levels, and even geography, but the number of internet users in Latin America has grown over the past decade. Currently, the countries with the most internet users among Spanish-speaking countries in Latin America are Chile, Argentina and Venezuela.[1] According to a June 2011 report by AMPARO,[2] a project managed by the Latin American and Caribbean internet Addresses Registry (LACNIC), there are currently over 200 million users in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Throughout the region, there has been a pronounced surge not only in the number of homes with internet connection, but also in internet cafes. In an interview with COHA, a Peace Corps volunteer currently deployed in Honduras explained that, “in big cities, there are always a handful of places where you can get wifi. Also, virtually all mid sized towns have internet cafes, even some well-to-do small ones.” In addition, a September 13, 2010 article in Advertising Age quoted a poll by Nielsen’s “Emerging Digital Trends Report,” which explains that three in ten internet users from around the globe access the net from their phones. This behavior is most prominent in the Asia-Pacific region, where 71 percent of internet users have logged on from their phones in the last 30 days. This statistic is followed by 68 percent in Middle East-Africa-Pakistan (MEAP), 46 percent in Latin America, 37 percent in Europe, and 34 percent in North America.[3] Moreover, a recent study by Vision Mobile, reported by the Colombian daily El Tiempo, explained that Latin America is one of the regions that uses the least number of smart phones.[4] The report explains that the average in Latin America of smart phone-usage is 17 percent, compared to 27 percent, which is the global average, which means that there is ample opportunity for this technology to expand in this region.

It’s clear that internet usage will only continue to grow in the coming years as international telecommunication companies move in to capitalize on the relatively virgin Latin American market. In 2008, the Swedish-controlled international telecoms investor Millicom International Cellular S.A. launched 3G services in Guatemala, Honduras, Bolivia, Paraguay, El Salvador, and Colombia. According to a report by M2 Telecomworldwire, “Millicom said that it is providing the full portfolio of 3G services including high speed mobile broadband, internet access for mobile customers via laptop, TV on mobile handsets, music and video downloads and video calling.”[5]

Nevertheless, in some countries, some time will have to pass before they can reach the level of internet-connectivity that European and Asian states enjoy. The aforementioned Peace Corps member based in Honduras explained to COHA that:

Internet access in rural areas like where I live is confined mostly to offices. The only place that has internet where I live is at the alcaldia [the major’s office]. In any case the internet is mind-blowingly slow. Also, there are 4-5 people that have USB modems, which is how many people connect to the internet.

In another example of how telecommunications like phone and internet services have become a critical component of doing business in Latin America, the world’s richest man is Mexican national Carlos Slim, who owns América Móvil, Latin America’s largest mobile telecoms company. His empire now spans 200 companies in the construction, retail, tobacco, and media industries, and he gained further prominence in 2010 when he took over The New York Times; his fortune is estimated to be more than USD 63 billion by Forbes magazine.[6] América Móvil’s Mexican Telcel unit accounts for 70 percent of Mexico’s cell phone service and the Prodigy Infinitum is Mexico’s largest internet service provider.[7]

Latinos y la Web

The favorite sites for Latinos on the World Wide Web include social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, and communication programs like Hotmail and Skype. In an interview with COHA, a high school teacher in Jalisco, Mexico, explained that most of her students have Facebook profiles, and she even knows some primary school students who also have accounts on that website. There are also domestic spin-off versions of such sites; for example, Brazil has a popular social website known as Orkut. Other websites that are often visited include YouTube and national news and entertainment sites like in Peru or major TV station websites like Televisa and TV Azteca in Mexico.

Twitter has also attracted a number of Latino users; particularly as sports personalities and other celebrities use it to interact with their fans. For example, Brazilian soccer star Ronaldo (born Ronaldo Luis Nazario de Lima – @ClaroRonaldo) currently has over 2.5 million followers. Meanwhile, Roberto Gomez Bolanos, a famous Mexican comedy actor popularly known as Chespirito, has over two million followers (@chespiritorgb). Also recently, a Mexican soccer team, Los Jaguares, replaced the names of the players on their jerseys with their Twitter handles.[8]

Moreover, various heads of state have created Twitter accounts to better communicate with their citizens. Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez is an avid Twitter user (@chavezcandanga ), as well as Presidents Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia (@JuanManSantos) and Ollanta Humala of Peru (@Ollanta_HumalaT). Certainly, there is the issue of whether the heads of state themselves regularly manage their Twitter accounts or if it is their press teams who are called upon to maintain them. Nevertheless, President Chávez boasts over two million followers, while the Colombian leader can brag about almost 500 thousand followers.

Some regional governments are even trying to use social media for health research. A July 16 article in New Scientist reports that thanks to software created by the Brazilian National Institute of Science and Technology, Brazilian researchers are using Twitter to track the appearance and spread of dengue diseases in the Portuguese-speaking country.[9] The article, explains that:

Dengue outbreaks occur every year in Brazil, but exactly where varies every season. It can take weeks for medical notifications to be centrally analyzed, creating a headache for health authorities planning where to concentrate resources. Using Twitter messages could mean a much faster response.[10]

Then again, there are some utilities brought about by the internet that have not yet caught on in Latin America. For example, e-purchasing is only slowly beginning to gain a foothold in the region as compared to similar e-businesses in the U.S. and Europe like eBay or Groupon. Some attempts at e-businesses have penetrated Latin America, but with limited success; there’s a Peruvian e-business known as iQuiero, ( where users can buy anything from washing machines to cake and bottles of whiskey and have it delivered to their homes, but its delivery area is limited (for example, for food delivery, you can only order if you’re in the country’s capital, Lima). Regarding Mexico, there’s a website called Mercado Libre ( which is essentially a Mexican version of eBay, where individuals as well as stores can sell products at reduced prices. Although other regional countries have yet to join the wave of online business, this does not preclude the potential for the growth of this sector in the coming years.

Brazil and the Internet

A June 2011 article in the Financial Times explains that “[i]n 2001 there were around 47m internet users in the BRIC[S – namely Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa] economies, now there are 759m; the number of users has grown 16 times in 10 years. However, the penetration of internet usage in the [BRICs] countries still only sits at 31 per cent which is paltry compared to the US at 77 per cent.”[11] Brazil officially had 67 million internet users in 2010, though experts argued that the number was probably closer to 73 million.[12] Brazil also has the second-highest number of Twitter users, surpassed only by the U.S. The country has a growing number of Facebook users as well, but the social media website known as Orkut remains a popular social networking site. In addition, regarding e-businesses, there is a website called Peixe Urbano ( which a sort of Brazilian version of Groupon, in which subscribers receive via e-mail offers for stores and other services.

The Rise of Hacking and other Cyber Crimes

Naturally, criminals regard the rise of the virtual world in Latin America as another plane to which they can expand their sphere of operations. Nevertheless, it is hard to determine which country is most affected by issues like cyber fraud, the infection of individual computers with malicious code and other issues, since it is often not reported when it occurs to individual users. One recent report in the Mexican daily argues that Mexico suffers the most cybercrimes in Latin America.[13] Nevertheless, the aforementioned AMPARO report, citing data provided by Symantec (a security software company) stated that Brazil, Mexico and Argentina make up the top three regional countries that suffered the most cyber attacks in 2009 and 2010.

Possibly having an even greater impact, hacking government web pages has become a growing problem due to the nationalistic persuasion of some of the hackers. For instance, Peruvian and Chilean hackers have a history of taking control of each other’s government websites, particularly before and after sporting events. In 2007, the Peruvian hacker group known as RootGroup attacked the websites of the Chilean Soccer Association, the Chilean Office for National Emergencies, and the National Council for Culture and Arts.[14] Later, in 2009, amidst tensions between the two countries over a spy case, Chilean hackers took control of the official website of the Peruvian government (, posting nationalistic insults and the Chilean national anthem.[15] More recently, in August 2011, Anonymous and Colombian hackers attacked the websites of the Colombian Ministry of Interior, the official government portal, and the now defunct intelligence apparatus, the Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad (DAS – Administrative Department for Security). The two associations declared that the attack, called “Operación Defensa” (Defense Operation), was to protest the Colombian government’s censorship.[16] Also, in June of this year, Brazil had several government websites hacked, “and private sector websites knocked offline and their Army personnel database was hacked with information posted online.”[17] It seems that a Brazilian hacking group, associated with the international hacker association LulzSec, was responsible.

A critical issue here comes down to who exactly is carrying out these cyber crimes. Are they just lone operations carried out by small groups of hackers that take control of a particular website for nationalistic purposes? And what about stealing bank information and other financially damaging crimes? Currently there is a major internet virus called SAPZ in Peru, which steals the user’s personal data, including their bank account information.[18]

Arguably when these crimes reach a certain level of complexity and goals, they are no longer just hacker groups looking for a quick profit, but they may be working for even bigger organizations. A July report by Southern Pulse, an online defense news and analysis website, explains that:

[G]roups including [the Mexican drug cartel] La Familia and Brazil’s PCC [Primeiro Comando da Capital – First Command of the Capital, a Brazilian criminal organization] have acquired black market hackers who can assist with committing crimes that bring in cash. Even MS-13 [an international criminal gang centered in Central America], not often considered a computer-savvy group, is said to have been involved in various low-level malware schemes in Central America for stealing bank identification information and manufacturing fake credit cards.[19]

Moreover, the war in Mexico against drug cartels has reached the virtual world. A popular blog, known as “Blog del Narco” (Narco’s blog –, reports on the most recent attacks carried out by Mexican criminal organizations. The Zetas, one of Mexico’s most powerful cartels, have had several deadly run-ins with members of the virtual world. In early November the decapitated body of a male was placed by a Christopher Columbus monument in Nuevo Laredo. The person was later identified as “el Rascatripas,” the moderator of an anonymous internet forum; it’s believed that he was murdered by the Zetas.[20] This cartel also has had a confrontation with Anonymous, as the hacker group posted a video online threatening the cartel with retribution if they did not release one of its kidnapped members.[21] Apparently the Zetas released the member and Anonymous did not carry out their threat.

A similar development is occurring in Guatemala. According to the daily elPeriodico, a number of blogs have appeared that identify alleged members of the Mara Salvatruchas; like Justicia Final ( and La Calaca de la Muerte ( The report goes on to speculate that the blogs are maintained by rival gangs, since only Mara 13 members are mentioned.

Finally, there also have been legal disputes regarding the content of the internet in Latin America. For example, the Argentine entertainer Virginia da Cunha brought a lawsuit against Google and Yahoo! Argentina, alleging that the two search engines damaged her “moral character” by displaying her name and photos of her when users carried out sex-related searches. A lower court originally ruled in favor of the Argentine in 2009, and ordered “the companies to pay damages and remove all sites containing sexual, erotic and pornographic content that contained the name or image of Ms. Da Cunha from its results.”[22] Nevertheless, in August 2010, a higher appeals court overturned that decision, stating that “the 2-to-1 appeals court ruling […] said the firms could be held liable for defamation only if they were made aware of clearly illegal content and were negligent in removing it.[23]


One issue about these rising cyber crimes is that regional states have been slow in prosecuting the culprits. Regional police forces lack the kind of ‘cyber police’ needed to fight crime in this kind of environment. In an interview to BNamericas, Stu Bradley, director of the fraud department and financial crimes of the U.S. software company SAS, explained that hackers from China and Russia are focusing more of their operations in Latin America due to the underdeveloped practices employed to combat this type of crime.[24] He also explained that “one of the difficulties in Latin America is that there aren’t many organizations that combat [cyber]fraud.”[25]

One exception to the rule is Brazil. In August 2010, the Brazilian army created a cyber-defense wing known as the Centro de Defesa Cibernética do Exército (Army’s Center for Cybernetic Security), with General José Carlos dos Santos as commander.[26] The center currently has twenty officers working there, but it aims to have thirty by year’s end. In an interview with Revista Época, a Brazilian magazine, General Santos explained that the hiring of hackers to work for the Center “is a possibility.”[27] The Brazilian military officer went on to say that “we have ways to recruit by showing our work and giving the perspective of a challenging and interesting career.”[28] He also said that beginning 2012, it will be mandatory for young Brazilian military officers to learn about information technology, and this will also be applied in the training of sergeants.[29]

E-Challenges are Real Challenges

The aforementioned July 2011 analysis on cyber crimes in Latin America that was published by Southern Pulse explains that “the cyber domain is adding new complexity to the serious criminal threat facing Latin America at a time when the region is under pressure to focus on the more physical security threats such as high murder rates and illicit trafficking.”[30] In that sense, cyber crimes comprise the latest security issue that Latin American law enforcement agencies will have a problem coping with, as the region is already filled with more tangible security threats like narco-terrorism, the spread of the Mexican cartels, and other types of violence. It is doubtful that regional police and military forces will have the budget, personnel, or technology to give crimes in the virtual world the same priority as those in the physical world, though the Brazilian CDCE center is an initiation that should be repeated elsewhere. Certainly, one option would be for Latin American governments and major businesses, such as banks, to outsource their virtual security needs to international software companies. But this could be a costly decision, and it would be better if governments delve into their nation’s youth pool for future e-defense specialists, like the Brazilian army appears to intend to do.

While not as widespread as in other parts of the world, the internet has a strong presence in Latin America, and this will only continue to grow as most of the region enjoys an economic boost and the younger generations grow more and more accustomed to having access to laptops, iPhones, and simply being part of the globalized virtual world. It is not just natural, but also a priority, that cyber-security initiatives should maintain the same pace as the quickly spreading virtual world in Latin America.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Give War a Chance Revisited – The Price to Pay: The Military and Terrorism in Peru

Defense Studies

Give War a Chance Revisited – The Price to Pay: The Military and Terrorism in Peru

W. Alejandro Sanchez Nieto
pages 517-540
Volume 11, Issue 3, 2011

This article aims to discuss Edward Luttwak’s 1999 piece “Give War a Chance” and how it relates to the internal armed conflict in Perú against two terrorist groups, the MRTA and Shining Path. In his article, Luttwak essentially advocates a military solution to conflicts, downplaying the need and desire for cease-fires and international intervention. Questions addressed here include: After decades of war and between 30,000-70,000 thousand deaths, has a military solution brought peace to Perú? Was negotiation and/or mediation ever a possibility? This research argues that a military solution for intra-state conflicts can be successful, but other factors need to be taken into account as well.

The link above will take you to the Taylor & Francis where you can register/purchase the article. Please contact me if you would like a .pdf version if you're an academic/researcher etc. wilder.a.sanchez at

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Interview: US Attorney General questioned over gun-walking scandal

Personal Interview
December 9, 2011
Link - Video available here

US Attorney General Eric Holder was in the line of fire Thursday on Capitol Hill. Congressional lawmakers investigating Operation Fast and Furious questioned Holder about the Justice Department's handling of the so-called gun-walking scandal.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms allowed more than 2,000 guns to cross into Mexico. The idea was to take down a drug cartel. Instead, weapons showed up at crime scenes in Mexico and Arizona...including at the murder scene of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry last December.

Holder said his department is dedicated to getting answers about the controversial program.

Operation Fast and Furious started in 2009 and allowed illegally purchased firearms to be taken from gun stores in Arizona across the Mexican border to drug cartels. The intent of the operation was to monitor the flow of weapons to their ultimate destination.

Council on Hemispheric Affairs Alejandro Sanchez Nieto says the Justice Department is responsible for giving guns to Mexican criminal organizations which are more powerful than what Mexican security forces have.

The weapons AK47 Russian rifles and these are actually sign more powerful than police have and what police use are pistols and revolvers type of guns. Some experts say the US is responsible for giving guns to drug cartels which are more powerful than what Mexican police use.

In Mexico, the case has drawn nationwide attention. Top officials have long stressed that U.S. weapons are fueling the country's drug war.

Attorney General Eric Holder suggested that weapons lost during the "Fast and Furious" gunrunning operation will continue to show up at crime scenes in the U.S. and Mexico "for years to come."

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Assessing Kaliningrad's Geostrategic Role: The Russian Periphery and A Baltic Concern

Journal of Baltic Studies

Assessing Kaliningrad's Geostrategic Role: The Russian Periphery and A Baltic Concern

W. Alejandro Sanchez Nieto
Volume 42, Issue 4, 2011
pages 465-489

This paper discusses the geopolitical and geosecurity importance of the Russian oblast of Kaliningrad. In particular, the paper discusses the Moscow–Kaliningrad center–periphery relationship and how it contrasts with the oblast's place within the Baltic region, where it is regarded as a security issue by some states. This can be contrasted with how the Baltic region falls in NATO's security priorities. Thus, the goal is to address the ‘uses’ of Kaliningrad in the Russian-Greater Baltic and Russian-Washington/NATO relations.

The link above will take you to the Taylor & Francis where you can register/purchase the article. Please contact me if you would like a .pdf version if you're an academic/researcher etc. wilder.a.sanchez at

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The “Frozen” Southeast: How the Moldova-Transnistria Question has Become a European Geo-Security Issue

The Journal of Slavic Military Studies

The “Frozen” Southeast: How the Moldova-Transnistria Question has Become a European Geo-Security Issue

W. Alejandro Sanchez
Volume 22, Issue 2, 2009
pages 153-176

The Republic of Transnistria is a separatist region of the Southeastern European state of Moldova. While not much has changed in this “frozen conflict” since a 1992 short-lived war, the eastwards expansion of the European Union and NATO are slowly bringing Moldova to the attention of Western policymakers. The cornerstone of the separatist cause is the Russian Federation, which serves as Transnistrias protector. Given the 2008 summer in war in Georgia, another so-called “frozen conflict,” it is necessary to evaluate how a Russia-backed separatist region in Moldova, accussed of human rights violations and weapons trafficking, fits into the wider discussion of European geosecurity and NATO/West-Russian relations for the immediate future.

The link above will take you to the Taylor & Francis where you can register/purchase the article. Please contact me if you would like a .pdf version if you're an academic/researcher etc. wilder.a.sanchez at

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Olympic Challenge: Russia's Strategy for the Establishment of Security in the North Caucasus before 2014

The Journal of Slavic Military Studies

The Olympic Challenge: Russia's Strategy for the Establishment of Security in the North Caucasus before 2014

W. Alejandro Sánchez Nieto
Volume 24, Issue 4, 2011
pages 582-604

This article discusses the ongoing security situation in the Russian North Caucasus, with a particular focus on the upcoming Winter 2014 Olympics in the resort of Sochi. The aim is to discuss groups that could be a source of potential problems, including non-violent groups like the Circassians, which have an issue with the Olympics taking place in their ancestral homeland, and violent rebel organizations like the one led by Doku Umarov. Finally, we will discuss what initiatives Moscow is expected to carry out over the next three years, as well as providing some policy suggestions.

The link above will take you to the Taylor & Francis where you can register/purchase the article. Please contact me if you would like a .pdf version if you're an academic/researcher etc. wilder.a.sanchez at

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Unlikely Success: Latin America and Nuclear Weapons

The Unlikely Success: Latin America and Nuclear Weapons
by Alex Sanchez
Research Fellow
Council on Hemispheric Affairs
Blog Post - November 16, 2011

The website of the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) provides a list of nuclear countries: the United States, Russia, France, China, United Kingdom, India, Israel, Pakistan, and North Korea; (1) with a combined total inventory of 20,500 nuclear weapons. In addition, Iran is suspected of having an active nuclear weapons program. But an often overlooked fact is that none of these countries are in Latin America (the US’s location in the Western Hemisphere notwithstanding). Is there anything that the world, particularly states that possess nuclear weapons, can learn from the Latin American nuclear experience?

A Brief Nuclear History in Latin America
A global grassroots movement launched in 2007, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons explains that:

“Today there are nuclear-weapon-free zones [NWFZs] in Latin America and the Caribbean, the southern Pacific, Southeast Asia, Central Asia and Africa. More than 50 per cent of the Earth’s surface today comprises such zones […] States that belong to a nuclear-weapon-free zone are prohibited from producing, testing, stockpiling or acquiring nuclear weapons, and they cannot have nuclear weapons deployed in their territories.” (2)

Although Latin America does not currently possess any nuclear weapons, the region does have a short-lived history of issues regarding them. Examples of this range from the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, the nuclear weapons programs in Brazil and Argentina in the 1970s and 1980s (when both states had military governments), and the creation, in 1967, of the Tratado para la Proscripcion de las Armas Nucleares en la America Latina y el Caribe, (Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean, commonly known as the Treaty of Tlatelolco). The treaty includes the creation of a nuclear watchdog agency known as OPANAL (Organismo para la Proscripcion de las Armas Nucleares en la America Latina y el Caribe - Agency for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean). According to its website, OPANAL’s duties include convoking “regular and special general conferences and [consulting] meetings related to the established purposes, means, and procedures of the Treaty. OPANAL also supervises the adherence to the Control System and the obligations stemming from the Treaty […].” (3) Nowadays, Latin America takes pride in being nuclear weapons-free, despite continuing tensions between regional states, like ongoing border disputes or security tensions, which is traditionally a reason to jumpstart a nuclear weapons program (like in Israel or between India and Pakistan).
Nevertheless, it is important to stress that the Cuban missile crisis was not the only nuclear incident in the region. In the 1970s, two South American military powers, Argentina and Brazil, carried out secret nuclear weapons programs, creating fears of a possible war. A major reason for this was that the two neighboring states have a long standing rivalry (including the Cisplatine War in the 1820s); though nowadays this rivalry is, thankfully, mostly exemplified in soccer matches. In 1975, Brazilian leaders hastened their nuclear research by maintaining a two track program, one for civilian uses and a military one, as West Germany provided Brasilia with enrichment technology. At the time, it was predicted that Brazil could have nuclear weapons by the year 2000 (it managed to enrich uranium in 1987 but not to weapons-grade level).(4)

The Falklands War, which occurred in 1982, between Argentina and the United Kingdom prompted the fall of the ruling military junta in Buenos Aires and the return to democracy, which helped quicken the pace towards cancelling that country’s nuclear weapons program. Meanwhile, Brasilia returned to civilian rule in 1985 and the nuclear weapons program was also eventually cancelled. The two governments, now under civilian control, have significantly improved relations with each other to foster nuclear cooperation and confidence building, thus decreasing security tensions, distrust and the interest in nuclear weapons.

More recently, Venezuela, under the leadership of Hugo Chavez, has declared its interest of possibly pursuing a nuclear energy program to deal with the country’s energy demands, which are heavily dependent on the water flow in the Guri dam.(5) Nonetheless, there has been some controversy about Chavez’s intentions, as Washington and Caracas have suffered tense relations over the past decade. There are also rumors that Iran, an international pariah state with a controversial nuclear program, may be lending Caracas a hand with its nuclear quest, which could, according to some conservative analysts, culminate in nuclear weaponry. (6)

It is worth stating that ‘‘nuclear-weapon-free zones have sought to establish norms against the acquisition of nuclear weapons without even attempting to establish supporting sanctions or rewards.’’” (7) In Latin America’s case, there isn’t much to prevent regional states from developing nuclear weapons if they choose to do so, as OPANAL does not have the power to apply sanctions. One may pose the question as to why other Latin America countries, besides Brazil and Argentina, have not attempted to develop a similar nuclear weapons program.

Nuclear Cooperation

Even though Latin American states haven’t had a nuclear weapons program in decades, nuclear cooperation does exist. The best example is the creation of the ABACC (Agencia Brasileno-Argentina de Contabilidad y Control de Materiales Nucleares - Brazilian-Argentine Agency for Accounting and Control of Nuclear Materials ), which is responsible for overseeing a cooperation agreement initiated in 1991, in which Buenos Aires and Brasilia agreed to commit to using nuclear energy for solely peaceful purposes. In that year, Argentina, Brazil, the ABACC, and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) signed the Quadripartite Agreement, specifying procedures for IAEA and ABACC for the monitoring and verification of Argentine and Brazilian nuclear installations. (8) Nevertheless, it is worth stating that neither country has signed the additional protocol by the IEAE which gives the international watchdog the right to access information and visit nuclear sites. (9)

A 2009 commentary by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a think tank headquartered in Washington DC, puts the nuclear relations between Brasilia and Buenos Aires into perspective:

“Argentina and Brazil are seen as having been successful in turning their nuclear competition into cooperation through mutual confidence. This approach is often considered as a model for other regions where potential nuclear proliferation risks may be perceived. However, it is not yet certain that both countries will become competent partners by taking advantage of their joint strengths. Certain obstacles could endanger this process. Bureaucratic resistance, as well as possible asymmetries of interests and views -especially those related to the possibility of sharing proprietary technology - could upset the internal balance of the agreement and, therefore, its long-term sustainability.” (10)

Indeed, while the current levels of nuclear cooperation between Brazil and Argentina are positive, it is important to understand that they are not fault-proof and there is the possibility that cooperation could take a turn for the worst. For example, should inter-state disputes arise, or if military governments appear again, then a worst case scenario could be that nuclear weapons programs could be revisited.

In addition Venezuela has had plans for creating its own nuclear energy program with support from Iran. Some analysts have gone as far as arguing that Iranian mining companies currently operating in Venezuela may be trying to find uranium to use in Iran’s nuclear projects. (11) In interviews between the author of this essay and several Latin America military officials, (12) the consensus was that regional governments did not have a problem with Caracas looking to produce nuclear energy, but greater transparency is necessary to maintain inter-state confidence.

Not Nuclear but still Tension-prone
At this point it is important to note that, even though Latin American states have not fully developed nuclear weapons programs, it does not mean that Latin America is a peaceful region by any means. Besides insurgent groups, there are still tensions between several Latin American states, and there is an ongoing concern that isolated incidents could eventually lead to an inter-state war. Some recent incidents include:
• In 2008, Colombia and Venezuela almost went to war when the Colombian military entered Ecuadorian territory to attack a base of the Colombian insurgent movement FARC (Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces) where several high-level leaders were camped. Venezuelan President Chavez deployed his military to the border with Colombia, ready to declare war on Bogota to protect Ecuador’s sovereignty; but, fortunately, tensions dissolved.

• In late 2010, Nicaraguan troops diverted the course of a river and entered Costa Rican territory, alleging that it was theirs.

Regarding confidence building, Tariq Rauf, Head of the Verification and Security Policy Co-ordination at the IAEA, explains that “the key element in this process approach is the identification of the transformation of ideas and beliefs about the threat posed by neighbouring states. […] [W]hy leaders come to feel comfortable with new, less stark conceptions of threat remain unclear.” (13) In Latin America, confidence building improves relations among states, which is critical as issues such as border disputes exist. For example, Peru and Chile recently went to the International Court of Justice in The Hague to solve a maritime border issue. In addition, Bolivia demands a land corridor to access the Pacific Ocean via Chile (as La Paz lost its coastal territories to Santiago in the 19th century War of the Pacific). Chile and Argentina still have an unsettled border dispute and there are occasional negative feelings from Buenos Aires towards Santiago, since during the Falklands War the Chilean government provided London with vital intelligence information. Furthermore, Colombia and Venezuela still have an unresolved border dispute over the Gulf of Venezuela; and there is one also between Colombia and Nicaragua over San Andres Island.

Moreover, even though inter-state conflicts in Latin America are rare, they remain a source for concern. Arguably, the last major war in Latin America was between Paraguay and Bolivia from 1932-1935 (dubbed the Chaco War). More recent inter-state warfare has been relatively brief. For example, Peru had an ephemeral war with Ecuador in 1941, as well as non-declared wars in 1981 and 1995. In addition, Honduras and El Salvador had what is known as the Soccer War in 1969. Finally there was the Falklands War in 1982 between Argentina and the United Kingdom, in which, for the first time, a nuclear submarine was in combat action. Nevertheless, as the previous paragraph explains, there are still occasional incidents and other reasons for tensions that could end up in war.

When analyzing the historical tensions between India and Pakistan, Rauf explains that “given the entrenched differences between [them] over Jammu and Kashmir, and a history of three conventional wars and continuing hostilities in the Indian-administered part of Kashmir, the development of nuclear weapons as well as ballistic missiles by the two countries has heightened international concerns about peace and stability in that region.” (14) Regarding Latin America, the region has undergone an arms race in recent years, (15) but even that, combined with inter-state tensions and occasional incidents are still not enough to make regional states desire nuclear weapons as a means of self-defense. Pakistan and India should learn from Latin America about (nuclear) arm races, inter-state tensions and effective confidence building.

What can the World Learn from the Latinos?
There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all model for improving interstate relations and achieving non-proliferation; this is particularly relevant for nuclear security relations between global powers like the US and Russia, which operate on a level of their own due to the amount of WMDs they possess. However, lessons can be learned by moderate nuclear powers like the UK, France, Israel, Pakistan and India, as well as countries that may have or seem to be working towards acquiring such weapons, like Iran.

The cases of Argentina and Brazil regarding nuclear cooperation shows that it is possible for states to allow their nuclear energy programs to be supervised by some type of supranational organism (in this case the ABACC is a bi-national one, not an international agency like the IAEA). If we analyze the situation in Latin America vis-à-vis Europe, while it’s true that Argentina and Brazil do not possess nuclear weapons, unlike the British and French, if some kind of bi-national nuclear energy command can be achieved in South America, then it could occur between these two European powers. This would set a huge precedent towards nuclear confidence around the globe. A nuclear military relationship between Paris and London presents the most promising possibility at promoting nuclear cooperation and integration. There have been already some promising initial steps that this could happen as in March 2010, Paris offered to forces with London’s nuclear submarine fleet. (16)

In addition, the lack of nuclear weapons programs in Latin America, in spite of ongoing tensions is an important case study. For example, regarding India and Pakistan, their violent history over the past decades, including state-sponsored terrorism in each other’s country, has created a culture of mistrust and a continuous quest for more devastating weaponry so each military can feel they have a successful nuclear deterrent. In Latin America, the 1960’s to 1980’s saw a number of military governments come to power, and distrust was a key factor that brought about the nuclear weapons programs in Brazil and Argentina. Today, despite tensions and occasional incidents, the situation in the region is one of generally acceptable inter-state trust.

Another example of this regional inter-state confidence is the planned nuclear-powered submarine that Brazil is currently constructing with French aid. (17) When it becomes operational, the submarine will arguably be the most advanced and deadly naval weapon in any Latin America naval arsenal. Nevertheless, regional states have not displayed concerns about this new development. This is not simply because the Brazilian government has stated that it wants the submarine for naval protection (as it recently discovered underwater oil reserves in its sea). There are several confidence building mechanisms at play here, like the creation of UNASUR (Union de Naciones Sudamericanas – South American Nations Union), a South American political bloc, regular multi-national military exercises, as well as initiatives like economic integration and good diplomatic relations; all of these factors help make the Brazilian submarine not a concern for regional militaries. In talks with this essay’s author, military officials explained that the positive relations between the Brazilian government and the governments and militaries of other states are currently excellent, (18) which acts as a great confidence booster and decreases suspicions, that could include Brasilia using a nuclear-powered submarine against a militarily-weak neighbor like Uruguay.

Nuclear proliferation is a worldwide security problem, but these nuclear weapons are localized, thankfully, in less than a handful of states and there are a several NWFZs, including Latin America and the Caribbean. This positive development has not occurred just due to the signing of the Treaty of Tlatelolco, but because of the decision by the signatories to adhere to it for decades. In spite of tensions, like ongoing inter-state border disputes and occasional incidents, which include short-lived wars and an ongoing arms race, regional governments do not feel the desire to pursue an active nuclear weapons program to achieve nuclear deterrence. Furthermore, Brazil, a regional military power, is building a nuclear-powered submarine which, if it’s ever commissioned, will be the most powerful submarine in the Western Hemisphere that does not belong to the U.S. or, arguably, Canada, however this is not a major source of concern.

From Latin America’s success, nuclear states can learn that confidence building mechanisms and a sense of trust are critical for non-proliferation to succeed, as are the cases of Brazil and Argentina in the 1970’s to 1990’s.These tactics are currently working to prevent inter-state wars in Latin America, but it takes time to successfully implement them. The Pakistan-India situation, as well as Israel’s security issues, are two areas that can profit from learning about Latin America’s nuclear success, as they too are volatile hotspots. In addition, nuclear cooperation can unite countries, like Brazil and Argentina; this could be a lesson for France and the United Kingdom that no longer seeing each other as a security threat and can decide to further decrease their weapons of mass destruction by creating a bi-national nuclear command. While far from being a peaceful area, as demonstrated by ongoing asymmetric violence and occasional inter-state flare ups, Latin America is one of the lesser well-known, but more important, success stories of nuclear non-proliferation.

Please accept this article as a free contribution from this author, but if re-posting, please afford authorial and institutional attribution. Exclusive rights can be negotiated.


1 Status of World Nuclear Forces,” Federation of American Scientists,<>
2 “Nuclear Weapons around the World,” International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons,<>
3 “What is OPANAL?” Agency for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean
(OPANAL), < >
4 “Country profiles: Argentina & Brazil,” Disarmament and Peace Education, Global Security Institute, February 2002 <>
5 Nathan Crooks, “Venezuela’s Guri Dam reduces capacity, El Universal Says,” Bloomberg, March 23, 2011,<>
6 Tucker Reals, “WSJ: Iran, Venezuela Share a nuclear dream,” World Watch, CBS News, December 15, 2009. <>
7 Maria Rost Rublee, “Taking Stock of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Regime: Using Social Psychology to Understand Regime Effectiveness,” International Studies Review 10/3 ( September 2008), P. 429. Quoting Ronald B. Mitchell, “International Control of Nuclear Proliferation: Beyond Carrots and Sticks,” The Nonproliferation Review,5/1 (1997), P.40–52.
8 Jessica Lasky-Fink, “Brazil, Argentina Pursue Nuclear Cooperation,” Arms Control Association, April 2008,<>
9 Jessica Lasky-Fink, “Brazil, Argentina Pursue Nuclear Cooperation,” Arms Control Association, April 2008,<>
10 Irma Arguello, “Brazil and Argentina’s Nuclear Cooperation,” Proliferation Analysis, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, January 8, 2009, <>
11 “Venezuela seeking Uranium with Iran’s help,” Associated Press, September 26, 2009, < >
12 Interviews during the “Seminar on Disarmament and Nonproliferation,” Committee on Hemispheric Security and the Inter-American Defense College, Washington DC, March 28 - 30, 2011. Venezuela Panel.
13 Tariq Rauf, “Confidence-building and security-building measures in the nuclear area with relevance for South Asia,” Contemporary South Asia, 14/2 (June, 2005), P. 179.
14 Tariq Rauf, “Confidence-building and security-building measures in the nuclear area with relevance for South Asia,” Contemporary South Asia, 14/2 (June, 2005), P. 176.
15 Alex Sanchez, “South America and Its Likelihood of a Season of Splendid Little Wars: An Analysis of Arms Races and Regional Geopolitics,” Report, Council on Hemispheric Affairs, October 8, 2009,<>
16 Julian Borger and Richard Norton-Taylor, “France offers to join forces with UK’s nuclear submarine fleet,” The Guardian (UK), March 19, 2010, < >. Also see: Robert Wall, “Anglo-French nuclear cooperation in the offing?” Ares: A Defense Technology Blog, October 8, 2010 < >
17 “Brazil aims to build first nuclear sub within 12 years – agency,” RIA Novosti, May 18th, 2009, <>
18 Interviews during the “Seminar on Disarmament and Nonproliferation.,” Committee on Hemispheric Security and the Inter-American Defense College, Washington DC, March 28 - 30, 2011. Venezuela Panel

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Mottled Relationship: Iran and Latin America – A Brief Overview

This analysis was prepared by special COHA contributor J.A., with additional research by COHA Research Fellow Alex Sanchez
Council on Hemispheric Affairs
September 27, 2011
Originally posted:

  • Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was invited to visit President Hugo Chávez on September 24, but the trip was postponed as the Venezuelan head of state recovers from cancer.
  • Ahmadinejad partially empties UN Hall with some of his harshest statements.
  • Iranian influence in Latin America is sometimes more fiction than fact.
  • Befriending Iran’s repressive regime is somewhat contradictory for Latin American governments that openly crow their respect for democracy and human rights. Does Brazil really mean to have a creditable relationship with one of the most disreputable players and human rights violators?
  • In an ironic twist, Chávez is credited for mediating with the Iranian government to free two American hikers
  • The attacks against Israeli centers in Argentina in 1992 and 1994 continue to be a source of tension, but in Buenos Aires, business comes first.
The Islamic Republic of Iran and Latin America have been fostering closer relationships for more than a decade, working towards building cohesive diplomatic relations and strengthening economic agreements. These ties began with Cuba’s championing of the 1979 Iranian revolution, and today those connections also extend to Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay, and the ever-controversial Venezuela, with these amplified ties being sedulously cultivated by Tehran. Due to Iran’s internal politics, such as its controversial nuclear program, its contemptible human rights record, and its often tense, if not minatory, relations with the U.S., initiatives between Tehran and the Western Hemispheric states have come under heavy critique. As a result, there is speculation and differing interpretations over the existing level of influence that Iran currently enjoys in several nations of Latin America.

A Brief Overview
Ironically, as relations with the U.S. and European countries have deteriorated, Iran’s relations with the Global South have, if anything, noticeably progressed. Perhaps as a direct result of the U.S. placing Iran within the ‘axis of evil’, the Persian state began pursuing relationships with African governments and, within the last decade, an increasing number of Latin American countries, as a strategy to counteract U.S.-backed ostracism and efforts to diplomatically isolate Tehran. The apparent reasons for these alliances are:

(a) to gain economic advantage as well as much-needed relief and collegiality to cope with the consequences of U.S.- imposed sanctions;

(b) to counterbalance the geopolitical effect of U.S. policy in both the Muslim World and Latin America;

(c) to garner a sympathetic attitude and support for its nuclear program;

(d) to gain recognition in an increasingly prominent part of the Western Hemisphere, and in Washington’s sphere of influence, in order to achieve political prestige in the international community. This also helps, in part, divert the attention among the Iranian people, particularly in the aftermath of the 2009 Iranian election fraud that prompted massive repression of the dissenting democratic opposition.

The most pertinent questions, however, remain to be answered: Has the long term impact of these increasingly intimate relationships, such as the one between Caracas and Tehran, been fully analyzed? Are the initiatives and maneuverings carried out by some Latin American governments solely due to their impetuousness and lack of long-term goals? Notwithstanding the immediate economic advantage of gaining new markets, the long-term political ramifications and disadvantages of doing business with what the free world considers a horrendously corrupt regime places the Latin American region into a precarious situation. Latin America’s good will initiatives and human resources could be more wisely expended in dealing with nations that do not carry out egregious abuses towards its own citizens.

Case Study: Argentina
In March 1992, the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires was the subject of a bomb attack. It has been established that a pickup truck loaded with explosives, and driven by a suicide bomber, smashed into the front of the embassy, killing thirty-three and wounding as many as 242 persons. In July 1994, the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA; Argentine Israelite Mutual Association) building in Buenos Aires was the target of an attack that killed eighty-five people, while scores more were injured.

The violent Islamist militant organization Hezbollah has been regarded as the culprit behind these attacks, but there have been rumors that the Iranian government, including some members of the current administration in Tehran, may have been more directly involved. The Persian state has repeatedly declared its innocence regarding its involvement in both attacks. In July 2011, Iran’s Foreign Ministry stated that “the Islamic Republic of Iran, as one of the major victims of terrorism, condemns all acts of terror, including the 1994 AMIA bombing, and offers sympathy with the families of the victims of the explosion […] Iran’s Foreign Ministry expresses regret that 17 years on from the occurrence of this crime, the truth behind it has not been revealed yet and the identities of its real perpetrators are still shrouded in mystery.”[i] Furthermore, an article published by Press TV (a semi-official Iranian news agency) in July argues that, “under intense political pressure from the United States and the Israeli regime, Argentina formally accused Iran of carrying out the attack on the Jewish community.”[ii] Most independent observers, however, dismiss this rhetoric merely as tactical method to confuse the subject.

Tensions between Iran and Argentina took a new twist in early June 2011, when Iranian Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi visited Bolivia. General Vahidi is wanted by Argentina for allegedly masterminding the 1994 bombing.[iii] Buenos Aires asked La Paz to apprehend the Iranian official, but he returned to Tehran before any decision by the Bolivian government could be made.[iv] As Iran continues to promote its influence in Latin America, the controversy over the Argentine bombings will continue to be a sore point for the foreseeable future. The Argentine-Persian relationship, or lack thereof, presents a fascinating case study of a state trying to improve relations with another while at the same time attempting to overcome a violent recent past that includes state-sponsored terrorism.

Trade and Investments
During recent years, Iran has expanded its economic cooperation with many Latin American states, entering into substantial trade agreements with Venezuela, Bolivia, Peru, Brazil and, somewhat surprisingly, Argentina. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) stated in a report issued in December 2009 that Brazil is Iran’s largest trade partner in Latin America. Last year, Iran’s state radio announced that bilateral trade with Brazil had increased to more than USD 2 billion in 2009-10, an increase from USD 500 million in 2005, and was forecast to reach USD 10 billion in the next 5 years.[v]

Argentina is Iran’s second largest trading partner in the region, despite the fact that Buenos Aires has accused Tehran of the 1992 and 1994 bombings. Trade relations remained at marginal rates throughout the 1990s, but commercial activity never ceased entirely, and by 2008 bilateral trade had soared to USD 1.2 billion, dramatically overshadowing the 2007 figure of USD 30 million.

In addition, relations between Iran and Venezuela are a mixed bag of actual achievement and diplomatic rhetoric. According to the IMF report, and in spite of highly cordial political and diplomatic relations, bilateral trade between Venezuela and Iran did not advance in the same way as it did for other Latin American countries. For example, while Brazilian and Argentine trade with Iran has increased by 88 percent and 96 percent since 2007 respectively, Venezuela’s trade increased by only 31 percent in the same period. Following the increase in trade with Brazil and Argentina, Venezuela became Iran’s fifth largest trade partner in the region.

Moreover, Iran has pursued deeper trade and diplomatic relationships with Bolivia as well. Trade and energy agreements between La Paz and Tehran, signed in September 2007, confirmed the increasingly friendly nature of ties between the two countries. Iran’s involvement in the Bolivian economy extends to investment in and technological support for industrial projects such as dairy factories, agriculture, mining, and hydroelectric dam construction. Additionally, in July 2009, Tehran agreed to provide USD 280 million in low-interest loans to La Paz.[vi] Finally, Peru is also a growing importer of Iranian products, as is Ecuador. The expansion of trade ties follows an overall regional trade ‘offensive’ by Iran in recent years. IMF data analyzed by the Latin Business Chronicle indicates that Iran-Latin American trade skyrocketed by 209 percent in 2008, totaling a robust USD 2.9 billion.[vii] What this data tells us is that there is certainly a potential for trade to grow between Iran and several Western Hemisphere states, however Iran’s trade numbers are dwarfed by the region’s other trade partners, like the U.S., China and Europe.

Geopolitical Interests
To Washington’s increasing concern, the Brazilian Deputy Foreign Minister Maria Louisa met with her Iranian counterpart, Ali Ahani, in Brazil in early August 2011.[viii] The Brazilian official described Iran as one of “the important partners of Brazil” and an “influential” country. Louisa noted that Tehran and Brasilia would attempt to increase the level of mutual ties “considering the developments of the two countries in different fields.” The Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister, for his part, hailed “the friendly and good relations” between both states and said that the governments of Iran and Brazil are eager to expand ties. Given the grim status quo between Washington and Tehran, at some point in the near future, the White House is bound press the issue, and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff may have to choose whether her government will pursue closer relations with Washington, or with Tehran.

According to the Iranian International Newspaper Ettelaat, Iran has nearly doubled the number of embassies and cultural centers it maintains in Latin America. The number of embassies increased from six in 2005 to ten in 2010, and Tehran is building cultural centers in seventeen Latin American countries.[ix] Additionally, Iran has successfully negotiated no-visa agreements with Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Bolivia. It can also be argued that although relations have been strained with Argentina since the terrorist bombings, the continued trade between the two countries is a signal that geopolitical interests have gradually taken precedence over efforts to apprehend the perpetrators of the attacks. Argentina’s reaction to the visit of Defense Minister Vahidi to Bolivia does point out that Buenos Aires has not forgotten Iran’s alleged role, but that ultimately other initiatives have taken priority.

Nevertheless, if we consider Iran’s repressive regime, its brutal crackdown on dissenting voters, and the continued suppression of what most nations, particularly in the West, consider a wholly organic and legitimate uprising, it is difficult to comprehend the continued warming of relations with its Latin American partners. Nations are certainly free to pursue close relations with any states they wish, but it is baffling, considering the Iranian government’s repressive record when it comes to its own population, that Latin American governments, many of which repeatedly publicly proclaim their respect for human rights, want to befriend a thoroughly toxic nation like Iran. So what could be the reasons why Latin American countries continue to welcome the Iranian government’s overtures? Simply put, Latin American nations want an alternative to what some regional players see, at times, as U.S. imperialism. This is exemplified by the Chávez and Ahmadinejad pact signed in 2007 to formulate an “Axis of Unity”, particularly against the U. S.

In order for Iran to gain the geopolitical strength that its revolutionary leaders so fervently aspire to obtain, the country continues to play its U.S- as-an-imperial power card as aggressively as possible. It also plays a powerful role in pushing its Latin American partners into recognizing Palestine as a counterbalancing force against U.S. and Israeli influence. When it comes to assessing geopolitical gains, the common denominator between Latin America and Iran is economic advancement, rather than the counterbalancing of geopolitical power. Venezuela’s President Chávez is the exception to this rule, as, even though Venezuelan-Iranian economic relations are fairly robust, a major factor for this close rapprochement is that Chavez and the Iranian government are fairly ideologically aligned (at least regarding their views on Washington).

Support for Iran’s Nuclear Program
Venezuela, Cuba, and Syria were the only three countries that supported Iran’s nuclear energy program when the UN voted on it in 2006. However, there is little doubt that support has been increasing throughout Latin America due to Iran’s diligent pursuit of such backing. Now Bolivia and Brazil are also offering their measured support for Tehran’s civilian nuclear program. In addition, the ever-vociferous Venezuelan leader has officially stated that Iran has a legitimate right to its nuclear program and that Venezuela supports Tehran’s quest for peaceful nuclear technology.[x]

The Future of the Iran-Latin America Alliance
Chávez’s present personal medical issues, and the recent U.S.-imposed sanctions on Venezuelan oil company PDVSA[xi] (Petróleos de Venezuela S.A. – Venezuelan Petroleum S.A) for dealings with Iran, could serve to weaken the Venezuelan-Iranian nexus.[xii] This is because Venezuela’s current ideological views – particularly its foreign policy – ultimately derive from Chávez, and it is unclear what a post-Chávez Venezuela would look like. Would his political party maintain its unity and continue Chávez’s ideology, or would another course be taken? In addition, the Venezuelan military has declared its support for Chávez to the point that some organizations are concerned as to what would happen if another political party were to win the upcoming presidential election. What this means for Tehran is that its closest ally in Latin America is not Venezuela but rather its leader, and it is difficult to foresee how diplomatic ties would be affected by a transition of leadership.

Late September 2011 saw an interesting development, as the Iranian government recognized mediation initiatives by Chávez to free two American hikers held in an Iranian prison since 2009.[xiii] According to statements by the Venezuelan Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs, Temir Porras, the Venezuelan government agreed to help Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal after receiving a request for help from the hiker’s friends. It has also been reported that Noam Chomsky signed a letter asking for Chávez’s help.[xiv]

Although various news sources have reported an increase in the establishment of Iranian embassies in Latin America, a Latin daily source indicates that, at least in the case of Nicaragua, such plans have failed to come to fruition. This is particularly interesting as there had been rumors circulating that Iran’s embassy in Managua is, or was supposed to be, some kind of massive intelligence hub involving an unusually large number of staff, which, by default, would put U.S. interests in the region at risk.[xv] In reality, the Iranian Embassy in the Central American country may be nothing more than somewhat large.

In mid-June, an Iranian analyst published a piece in the Iranian newspaper Jaam-e Jam entitled “Failure of the United States to break relations between Iran and Brazil.” The analyst explains that Iran’s initiatives in Latin America “change the quiet backyard of the United States to a dangerous backyard for that country, because the expansion of Iran’s economic and political relations with the countries of that region is indicative of the failure of U.S. efforts to impose sanctions and threats on Iran.”[xvi] The analyst also discusses how relations between Tehran and Latin America affect Israel:

Changing the United States’ quiet backyard to a dangerous backyard has also created major concerns for Tel Aviv, in addition to Washington. Such worries have intensified to the point that Shimon Peres, the head of the Zionist regime, left for a visit to Latin America, which is considered the first official visit of this sort to Latin America in the course of several decades, only a few days before the visit of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.[xvii]

The bottom line seems to be that Latin America sees Iran’s involvement in the region in terms of economic interests. Additionally, it may allow the region to gain a foothold in the Muslim world, with the secondary benefit (at least possibly in Venezuela’s case) of reducing U.S. influence in the region. Meanwhile, as interpreted by the aforementioned Jaam-e Jam analysis, Tehran sees its rapprochement with Latin America mostly in terms of its impact on Washington and Tel Aviv.

Finally, it is interesting to observe that Brazil, Latin America’s powerhouse and a nation that is currently attempting to obtain a permanent seat on the United Nation Security Council, has also increased the pace of diplomatic ties with Iran. Brasilia has gone on record to declare its support for Tehran’s civilian – albeit controversial – nuclear program. It may soon become apparent to Itamaraty diplomats that they will have to choose between Washington and Tehran as their primary overseas partner.

In the interest of creating a just and prosperous hemispheric community, it is important for regional nations to continuously evaluate the scope and breadth of the burgeoning economic aid pacts and political gains being devised between Latin American countries and Iran. This survey must also include a gauging of the inherent merits of these gains and an evaluation of whether they are more fictive than real. A closer examination of the Islamic Republic of Iran depicts an undemocratic governing body heavily burdened by religious dogma, underdeveloped financial standards, institutional corruption and self-imposed non-transparency, a legal system hardly worthy of the name, the absence of any civil liberties, and atrocious human rights violations.

Iran’s current leadership can hardly be described as providing a suitable alternative to traditional U.S. domination and a sphere of influence. Even if counterbalancing U.S. power in Latin America can become more than a fantasy, and grow into a viable plan to amplify the resonance of democracy in the region, the advantages derived from an arrangement with Iran must be weighed against the costs of introducing another form of despotic influence into the democratically fledgling Latin American region.

Please accept this article as a free contribution from COHA (and reproduced here by this author), but if re-posting, please afford authorial and institutional attribution. Exclusive rights can be negotiated.

[i] BBC Monitoring Middle East – Political Supplied by BBC Worldwide Monitoring July 22, 2011 Friday
Iran regrets “false” accusations over 1994 Argentina-Israeli building blast
[ii] BBC Monitoring Middle East – Political Supplied by BBC Worldwide Monitoring July 22, 2011 Friday
Iran regrets “false” accusations over 1994 Argentina-Israeli building blast
[v] “Brazil is Iran’s Most Important Trading Partner, Followed by Argentina.” Santiago Times, December 7, 2009
[vi] “Iran Approves $280 Million Loans For Bolivia,” Associated Press, July 29, 2009
[vii] Brazil is Iran’s Most Important Trading Partner, Followed by Argentina,” Santiago Times, December 7, 2009
[viii] “Iran, Brazil discuss expansion ties.” Press TV. August 10, 2011. Available
[x] “Venezuela’s Chavez Backs Iran In Nuclear Dispute, Warns Against U.S. Attack,” International Herald Tribune, April 15, 2007; Iran’s President to Visit Bolivia, Venezuela,” VOA News, September 24, 2007
[xiii] “Iran confirma mediacion del Presidente Chavez para liberacion de dos estadounidenses.” September 22, 2011 Available < >
[xiv] Cooler, Walter. “PICKET: Freed American hikers thank Hugo Chavez, Noam Chomsky, Cindy Sheehan; raise suspicion about purpose of trip.” Washington Times. Blog. September 25, 2011. Available < >
[xv] O’Connor, Anne-Marie & Sheridan, Mary Beth. “Iran’s rumored Nicaraguan ‘Mega Embassy’ sets off alarms in the U.S.” Washington Post. World. July 13, 2009. Available < >
[xvi] BBC Monitoring Middle East – Political Supplied by BBC Worldwide Monitoring June 19, 2011 Sunday. Iran’s Latin America ties “sounded alarm bell” for US, Israel – analyst
[xvii] BBC Monitoring Middle East – Political Supplied by BBC Worldwide Monitoring June 19, 2011 Sunday. Iran’s Latin America ties “sounded alarm bell” for US, Israel – analyst

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Proliferation of Small Arms in the Northern Andean Countries

The Proliferation of Small Arms in the Northern Andean Countries

by Alex Sanchez
Research Fellow
Council on Hemispheric Affairs
Blog Post - September 19, 2011

Disclaimer: Like with the Philippines post, this is an excerpt of a piece I did on small wears in the Northern Andes some time ago that never got published. I apologize if any of the info is too dated, but the analysis is still pretty relevant I think.

South America’s northern Andean region (Peru, Colombia, Venezuela & Ecuador) continues to be a flea-market for the trafficking of small arms. In an egregious non-sequitur, the lack of inter-state warfare in the hemisphere for the last several decades has failed to stop the various South American militaries from upgrading their military power, particularly in recent years. In addition, small weaponry, such as rifles, pistols and grenades are becoming dangerously common in much of Andean South America, especially due to the proliferation of guerilla movements, and criminal organizations. Common street criminality is also on the rise in major cities like Lima, as criminals have access to light arms to carry out their illicit activities, prompting citizens to acquire guns to protect themselves and their families. The proliferation of small arms from the “grassroots” level to major arm purchases by a country’s security forces, is an important factor that needs to be taken into account to understand the current micro and macro geo-security landscape of Andean South America.

Inter- vs. Intra- state warfare

As aforementioned, an important aspect to mention about the contemporary security landscape of South America is that, aside from the Falklands conflict between Argentina and the United Kingdom in 1982, the region has not witnessed an inter-state warfare for decades. Even though tensions still exist, and often countries have been on the verge confrontation (like between Peru’s Juan Velasco Alvarado and Chile’s Augusto Pinochet in the 1960s and 1970s, or tensions between Venezuela and Colombia in 1987), bellicose face-offs have been relatively rare. Peru and Ecuador had a number of non-declared borders wars in 1981 and 1995; however both were very localized and short-lived. Other short lived conflicts include the 1969 war between Honduras and El Salvador (known as the 100 Hours War or the Soccer War), and the Falklands War between Argentina and the United Kingdom in 1982.Nevertheless, today South America is in a new arms race: Venezuela is buying staggering amounts of weaponry from Russia and China, Peru is upgrading its air fleet and purchasing frigates from Italy (Lupo class), and Chile has acquired Leopard tanks and American F-16 fighter jets. Not to mention Brazil’s plans for a nuclear-powered submarine.

However it is the different levels of intra-state strife and crime that is the dominating security factor in Andean South America, due in large measure to the threats posed by the Colombian guerrilla body, the FARC, and Peru’s resurgent Shining Path. Other sources of internal instability, which are linked to the proliferation of small weapons, are drug cartels and multinational and local criminal gangs.

Light Weaponry Distributors and Buyers
A number of countries have become the exporters of light weaponry to South America, particularly the Andean nations:

Moscow is regaining its international status in the Western Hemisphere as a major arms dealer. Concerning light weaponry, the sale that has made attracted the most coverage was Caracas’ decision to build, in Venezuelan territory, a Kalashnikov rifle factory, in addition to a plant to produce the AK-103’s ammo. The goal is to have the company operational by 2009-2010 and capable of producing up to 30,000 automatic rifles per year. Colombian policymakers have, at times, expressed apprehension that some of these Kalashnikovs may unintentionally (or even intentionally), end up in the hands of the Colombian FARC rebels.

The Fusil Automatique Léger (Light Automatic Rifle – FAL) is the standard weapon used by a number of military forces, like for example Peru. The FAL is a 7.62mm NATO self-loading, selective fire rifle produced by the Belgian armaments manufacturer Fabrique Nationale de Herstal (FN). The Argentine Armed Forces officially adopted the FN FAL in 1955. The FALs were produced by the Argentine state-owned manufacturing industry FM (Fabricaciones Militares) at the Fabrica Militar de Armas Portatiles "Domingo Matheu" (FMAP "DM") in Fray Luis Beltrán, located north of Rosario.

Argentina’s possession of the Belgian FAL license becomes relevant today because of Venezuela’s purchases of different types of rifles, including the AK rifle factory, to be set up in the latter country. On December 14, 2005 the Associated Press ran a story by Fabiola Sanchez, which explained that Caracas was considering sending its 30,000 FAL rifles to Argentina for repair. According to the article, the plan would be to give the restored FALs to the Venezuelan army reserve, while the new AK assault rifles would be given to active troops.

United Kingdom
London is not a major exporter of small arms to South America. According to the Annual Report on Strategic Export Control, published by the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, the British government has sold limited quantities of light weapons to Andean nations. The 2006 report mentions that Peru purchased gun silencers; Ecuador obtained pistols as well as technology relating to the use of pistols; and Venezuela purchased heavy machine guns and components for general purpose machine guns. The report for the first quarter of 2007 mentions that Colombia acquired heavy machine guns and other equipment for a total value of one million pounds. In all cases, the official reports do not provide major specifications about the weaponry or components that were purchased.

The U.S.
American small arms in the northern Andes are a mix of both legal and illegal trade. It is relatively easy to find American-made pistols in a number of black markets in downtown Lima for example. The key, yet unclear, issue is the number of legally sold small arms to regional countries, particularly Colombia. Much has been written regarding the amount of economic and high-tech weaponry sold by Washington to Bogota, like the UH-60L Black Hawk helicopters; however it is unclear the level of trade regarding small arms, like assault rifles and pistols that may have been purchased for the Colombian army, some of which may have even found their way to right-wing, military supported, paramilitary groups. Nevertheless, a few months ago there was a bizarre, and embarrassing, incident, in which guns landed in the hands of Mexican cartels via a gun-trafficking operation dubbed “Fast and Furious” by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).

The operation was designed to build big criminal cases against violent Mexican drug cartels and the people who provided them with Ak 47s and other high powered weapons. But instead, ATF agents in some cases lost track of the weapons under surveillance and they later turned up at crime scenes on both sides of the Southwest border, including the December 2010 death of U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry.

Illegal Producers of Small Arms
Weaponry, like small arms, can also be obtained from illegal manufacturers that make copies of rifles and ammo, some of which are highly accurate in appearance and performance. This is a particularly profitable and booming business as criminals (not to mention terrorists) will want to acquire such weapons to carry out their attacks or other criminal activities, while citizens will purchase these guns for protection, leading to the proliferation of illegally-produced small arms. For example, in late November 2007, the Peruvian police arrested a family (a mother and her two sons) in their house in the district of Lince, Lima and accused them of illegally manufacturing guns and ammo. In the course of the raid, police officers came upon thousands of different magazines of ammo, including the infamous “dum dum” bullets. The commander of the VII police region, General Octavio Salazar Miranda, declared that “we do not know if [the guns and ammo] were going to go to the hands of terrorists, drug cartels or to the Colombian FARC guerrillas.”

Attempts at stopping small arms proliferation
A significant event occurred in July 2007, during a celebration of International Gun Destruction Day, when almost 14,000 small arms were destroyed in Colombia. A July 19 article by the Inter Press Service quotes Ambassador Claudia Blum as saying that the weapons destroyed in the July celebration did not come from the armed forces. “There were 13,778 weapons destroyed, which included machine guns, handguns, rifles and mortars," she said. “Out of these, the vast majority -77 percent- were confiscated from criminal organizations and illegally armed groups throughout the national territory. The rest were legally owned weapons turned in by private citizens committed to security and nonviolent coexistence,” the ambassador concluded.

The report “Violencia, Crimen y Trafico Ilegal de Armas en Colombia,” published by the United Nations’ Oficina contra la Droga y el Delito explains that small arms found during raids on insurgent movements and criminal cartels had originated from a variety of sources, including: Belgium, France, Spain, Bulgaria, Germany, Hungary, China and North Korea. The report’s sources explain that none of these governments authorized the sales or validated that the ultimate destination of the weapons would be Colombian insurgent movements.

Meanwhile, reports in June 2007 show that the Ecuadorian government has taken steps to control the illegal possession of weapons, in order to boost the safety of its citizenry. Ecuador’s Interior Minister Gustavo Larrea has declared that, “illegally bearing arms is a crime carrying a sentence of up to five years in jail.” The crackdown on illegal weapons came after as many as six minors were killed in Guayaquil during the first half of the year as a result of gun fights. This prompted Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa to launch his “Ecuador Without Weapons” program.

The Incan Weapons Market
The case of Peru is a good example of how the trafficking of small arms can spread throughout different levels of a country’s government, security forces and civil society. For years there have been reports of trafficking mafias in that country’s military and police. This illicit practice is carried out by both retired and active duty officers. For example, the 1990s deal by former Peruvian intelligence chief Vladimiro Montesinos-FARC deal over AK rifles (known as “Operation Siberia”) had as main middle man a retired army lieutenant, Jose Aybar Cancho.

In April 2007, an article published on the webpage of the Colombian Air Force highlighted the link between weapons sales from Peru to the FARC. The article explained that in September 2006, Peruvian authorities detained a group of Peruvian weapons traffickers and a load of contraband which included: 25 thousand magazines and five surface-to-air rockets that belonged to the Peruvian armed forces. The article went on to explain that the individuals who were detained for allegedly belonging to this group included Peruvian lower rank army officers, who had easy access to military ammo warehouses.

Investigations were made public in May 2007 that showed that there was a group of arms traffickers that moved weaponry and ammo from Peru to Colombia, via Ecuador. A report pinpointed Luis Pijo Angulo, a retired Peruvian police lieutenant, as the head of the group. Regarding the multiple illegal arms dealers with ties to the country’s military and police forces, the vice-president of the Defense Committee of the Peruvian Congress, David Waisman (also a former defense minister), said “I very much doubt that the high leadership [of the military]does not know about this [the illegal arms trafficking]. I suspect everyone right now as we are talking about very large quantities [of weaponry and ammo].”

The proliferation of small arms in Peru is shown by its blooming black market which makes small arms readily available to citizens. Any individual that visits street markets like Tacora or Las Malvinas in Lima can purchase with ease a Glock for $390 (including two clips of ammo), or a Browning for $400. There is no set price for these weapons; they are sold at whatever the merchant decides. A June 5, 2005 article in La República quotes a Peruvian small arms merchant saying “aquí el precio lo ponemos según la cara de pavo” (“the price [on weapons] is based on the [prospective] buyer’s appearance). Other weaponry (new and used) that can also be easily purchased in such markets include the Brazilian Taurus or the Italian Beretta.

What (and who) is killing people?
The strategies used in guerrilla warfare consist mostly of ambushes and hit-and-run attacks, which greatly diminish the relevancy of jet fighters or frigates, used for conventional warfare. Examples of attacks that have effectively utilized light weaponry include, for example, a November 2005 attack in Bogota – a hand grenade was thrown in a shop in the neighborhood of Fontibon, in Bogota’s northwest. The explosion killed 3 people, including two children.

In Brazil, a gun fight between rival gangs in June 2006, wounded six children by stray bullets, while eleven more were wounded due to shrapnel. The attack occurred in Rio de Janerio, in the Henrique Foreis school located in a shantytown. A September 9, 2006 Associated Press article by Harold Olmos explained that: “with their labyrinthine webs of narrow alleys, favelas offer easy hideouts to traffickers, and the slums' misery makes it easy to recruit young people into the narcotics trade. A study by the non-governmental group Viva Rio says the city has about 5,000 armed children soldiers in the battle for control of lucrative drug-dealing spots.”

Finally, the rise in criminal violence in Peru, particularly in major cities like Lima, has prompted civilians to purchase small arms in order to protect themselves and their homes, which could easily result in deadly accidents, aside from planned assaults.

A catastrophe could be in the making as Venezuela goes on with the scheduled plan of an AK factory, unless production was under vigorous control. This would almost certainly end up on the black market, or even legally, which could provoke more accidents if children come across ill-stored weapons in their homes.

The Grim Future
As South America becomes more involved in an arms race, there is no reason not to expect that an increase in violence will not follow. Inter-state warfare still remains unlikely; however intra-state warfare as well as widespread acts of ad hoc violence are every-day events in the region. Nations like Colombia and Ecuador have taken some steps to quell the spread of light arms to insurgent groups, as well as to criminal organizations and gangs, but much more needs to be done.

South America may not have witnessed an inter-state ware since the 1995 Peru – Ecuador border dispute; however, a day seldom passes without some new report of deaths or injuries as a result of small arms. The lack of conventional warfare does not mean that South America, the northern Andean region in particular, can be considered an entirely safe zone. Violence occurs using other types of weaponry, not necessarily tanks or fighter planes, but AK rifles, hand grenades and pistols. The future looks very grim for the northern Andean countries as small arms claims the lives of scores of their citizens on a weekly basis. The reality of the northern Andes is that the region is involved in a silent, never-ending cycle of internal violence, a human catastrophe going on before the world’s eyes.

A complete history and analysis of the AK rifle can be found in Larry Kahaner’s “AK-47: The Weapon That Changed the Face of War.” (Wiley; 1 edition – October 20, 2006)

Please accept this article as a free contribution from this author, but if re-posting, please afford authorial and institutional attribution. Exclusive rights can be negotiated.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Philippines and the Spratly Islands

The Philippines and the Spratly Islands
by Alex Sanchez
Research Fellow
Council on Hemispheric Affairs
Blog Post - September 14, 2011

Disclaimer: this isn’t a traditional blog post but rather excerpts from a personal piece that never got published regarding The Philippines and the Spratly islands. In the article I discussed Manila’s claim to the Spratlys, internal security in the country, the status of its military, as well relations with the U.S. and China. My original piece never got published so figured I might as well repackage some of it and post it here, the topic is certainly fascinating. I apologize if any of the info is dated.

An archipelago located in the South China Sea known as the Spratly Islands essentially consists of a group of islets and reefs, incapable of sustaining human life. A number of factors have made the Spratlys geo-strategically important in the past decades vis-à-vis regional affairs: geographical location, the nation that controls them would control a sizable area of the sea around them, and possible underwater oil deposits. Up to six nations have laid claims to these islands.

The Philippines’ control of part of the Spratly Islands is an interesting case of a militarily weak (at least when compared to several of its neighbors) and politically unstable nation laying a claim on a territory that provokes conflict with a major power, namely the People's Republic of China (PRC). Furthermore, in view of its, unfortunately, history of military coups as well as deadly domestic insurgent groups, it is debatable for how long can Manila maintain its control of part of the Spratlys without external aid (namely from the US). Due to the continued US-PRC struggle for influence in the region, the Philippines’ foreign policy ( closely linked to the reality of its domestic politics) and its claim to the Spratlys are relevant to the future of the South China Sea.

The Spratly Islands in Perspective – Philippine Interests
Manila’s interests in the Spratly Islands go hand in hand with what makes them so coveted. The islands should actually be defined as “islets” because of their miniature size. The biggest islands can, at most, hold a building or two. Located in the Southwestern and Southern parts of the South China Sea, the Spratly Islands have around 120 formations that go from islands, isles, shoals, banks, atolls, cays and reefs, with elevations from two to six meters and cover an area of approximately 180,000 kilometers. The islands have no natural resources to hold life and there is no native population to them.

Motivated by security concerns and economic interests, littoral states began in the late 1960s to make overlapping sovereignty claims to South China Sea islands, a process that has effectively led to the de facto military partition of the Spratly Islands archipelago. Apart from The Philippines, the other countries that have laid claims to the Spratlys are: the People’s Republic of China, the Republic of China/Taiwan (ROC), Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei, with Indonesia being an interested party.

The importance of the islands has been well documented; there are three major factors to the Spratlys that make them desirable:

. Location: the Spratly Islands are located in the South China Sea, a route used by transport ships (most of them coming from the Malacca Strait) as well as military vessels from different nations. Any nation that possesses the islands (all or some of them) would have an important advantage on terms of intelligence regarding the movement of vessels, as well as aircraft, on that particularly area. Writing in 1977, Selig Harrison stated that “the sea lane running between the Paracels and Spratlys is used by oil tankers moving form the Persian Gulf to Japan as well as by warships en route from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific.” (Harrison, Pp. 191)

. Extended Sovereignty: under international sea conventions the control of an island by any state also gives the island’s owner the sovereign control of a number of miles around the island. This is a major reason why the Spratly Islands have been labeled as islands, instead of islets; in order to be sure that the maritime sovereignty associated with an island will be maintained. Under the Law of the Sea Convention, “any state holding valid legal title to sovereignty over an island is permitted to establish a 12-nautical mile territorial sea and a 200—nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) around the island” (Joyner, Pp. 195 &198).

. Resources. The South China Sea attracted international attention during the 1970s when geological studies first suggested the existence of substantial reserves of petroleum and natural deposits beneath its sea-bed.Experts say that, at least for the time being, the possibility of finding oil is the least relevant of the main reasons for controlling the Spratlys.

The Neighborhood Factor - Geopolitics
Christopher Joyner clearly defines the geopolitical and geo-security importance of the Spratlys by explaining that:

“Lying between Vietnam to the west and the Philippines to the east, the Spratlys offer a potential staging location for blocking ships traversing the South China Sea. Aircraft, including helicopters, based in the Spratlys could fly within closer range of the Malacca and Sunda Straits, vital choke-points through which shipping in the South China Sea must pass to enter the Indian Ocean. A military presence in the Spratlys, such as an airfield, could effectively be used to stop all shipping in the South China Sea if armed conflict were to break out in mainland Asia”

(Joyner, P. 205).

The PRC would like to control the islands to safely carry out maritime operations. It would also help create a defense line around its south maritime borders. As early as 1975 the Chinese media had claimed the importance of the South China Sea, which is “an important junction for navigation and an important maritime gateway from China’s mainland and nearby islands.”(Peking Review, quoted in Harrison, Pp. 191)

It is important for other states to prevent the PRC from achieving control over the Spratlys – with Vietnam and Taiwan perhaps being at the top of the ladder when it comes to regional actors. While the Spratlys are not particularly geographically close to Taiwan, it is not in Taipei’s interest to see the PRC gain too much maritime power and free reign, as this could be the first step of an encirclement of Taiwan, should the PRC also gain influence over the Philippine Sea.

Similarly, relations between Vietnam and PRC have had several tense moments. In 1974 the two countries (at the time South Vietnam, before the NVA gained control of the country) clashed over the Paracel Islands, with China resulting victorious. On February 8 1987, Chinese and Vietnamese warships opened fire on each other in the area. On March 14 of that same year, a more serious confrontation occurred off Union Reef, as each navy lost a vessel and 120 Vietnamese sailors drowned. Even more serious was the violent clash between China and Vietnam in March 1988. On October 2007, even if it was not a military clash, diplomatic relations were strained as China began promoting tourism to the Paracels as if they are Chinese territory, infuriating Vietnam. In return, Hanoi appointed a “Chairman” to rule the Paracels in April 2009. In response to these events, Taiwan reiterated its sovereignty over the Paracels on June 2009, angering Hanoi.

The Philippines’ Claim to the Spratlys

On May 17, 1951, Filipino President Elpidio Quirino claimed his country’s rights to the Spratly Islands, some of which are in Philippines’ territorial waters. In 1957 a Filipino named Tomas Cloma claimed that he had discovered the Spratly Islands and claimed them for himself, not for his country. In 1971 Manila officially claimed part of the Spratly Islands based on the “explorer” Cloma’s discovery and occupation. Manila argued that the Spratly did not belong to anyone, hence they could be claimed. Such a declaration clashed with Beijing’s arguments that Chinese fishermen had visited, even colonized, the islands centuries ago. In April 1972, Manila laid claim to eight of the islands, the largest being Pag-asa. The islands were designated to be part of Palawan Province, with its own local government. In February 2009, Philippine lawmakers passed a bill to part of the Spratlys, both the Kalayaan islands where Philippine troops are stationed, as well as Scarborough Shoal, also claimed by China.

In an interview with the author, a Philippine professor explained that there has been a “consistent claim” since the time of Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos over the Kalaayan. Considering that the claimed islands are already domestically accepted as part of Palawan Province, and in one of the islands there is a presence of Philippine marines, Manila claim to the islands is seen as a feat accompli.

Unfortunately for The Philippines, its internal security is far from ideal, so its military cannot fully focus on protecting its maritime borders, including in disputed areas like the Spratlys. Almost immediately after independence in 1946, insurgent movements begun, including the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and its New People’s Army (NPA) sprung again. These groups continue their struggle today, at the same time that new insurgent movements have appeared.

The NPA currently has around 5.000 troops, down from 25,000 in 1986. It seems there is little intention by either the Communist leadership or the government to resort to mediation or dialogue. In 2007 the NPA began carrying out attacks against international mining companies. By early 2008, Manila was confident that it could carry out a final offensive, for which it was planning to recruit up to 3,000 new troops. Nevertheless a decisive victory continues to elude the military; in March 2009, the NPA had vowed to continue operations in Panay Island thanks to an increase in fighters. Since beginning their insurgency in 1969, the NPA has been blamed for over 40,000 deaths.

Likewise, there is still concern about the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). Peace talks to expand a Muslim autonomous region collapsed in August 2008. In a 2007 confrontation 14 Philippine marines were killed by the Moro rebels, 10 of which were beheaded. On early June 2009, the military announced that it had killed 30 rebels and captured a Moro separatist camp on Mindanao island. Regardless of military accomplishments, Then-President Arroyo (unlike her dealings with the NPA or Abu Sayyaf) has pushed for renewed mediation with the MILF. The Moro rebels have a reported strength of 11,500 armed men.

Another Philippine insurgent organization is the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) which has been under US scrutiny for its alleged ties with other religiously-extremist groups in Southeast Asia like Jemaah Islamiyah, Gerakan Aceh Merdeka as well as Al-Qaeda. On January 2009, Philippine Lt. Gen. Nelson Allaga argued that reports on a possible buildup of ASG’s forces after heavy losses last year were superficial, “basically, their numbers have been reduced, they're not so much of a threat […].” In spite of arguably fewer members, ASG’s operations have continued to have effective results – in early June 2009 up to seven Philippine soldiers died fighting ASG rebels in Indanan in the southern Sulu province. Abu Sayyaf’s maritime operations have also become a source of concern, particularly due to the heavy maritime traffic that goes through the South China Sea.

In September 2007, the Philippine military filed a complaint of alleged MILF support for Abu Sayyaf when the latter insurgent movement clashed with troops in Basilan, where two soldiers died.

In April 2009, Philippine Defense Minister Gilberto Teodoro said that the 80,000-strong Army needed an additional 12 battalions (6,000 troops) to deal with the country’s insurgent groups. It is not surprising that the Philippine armed forces do not have the resources to focus on external threats, much less militarily expanding Philippine sovereignty to the Spratly Islands if they require even more troops to establish peace at home.

The Philippines, the People’s Republic of China and the Spratly Incidents
Manila’s relations with China have been historically mixed. The Chinese tend to look with contempt to other races, including South Asians like the Filipinos. At the same time, Filipinos see unassimilated Chinese who live in the Philippines as strangers; they are often the focal point of racism and discrimination.

A number of incidents have brought the Philippines close to a confrontation with the PRC over the Spratlys and the South China Sea in general. As far back ias the Marcos government, Manila has attempted to create an ASEAN coalition to restrain Chinese ambitions in the South China Sea. In mid-late 1994, Beijing constructed a military observation post on Mischief Reef, a Philippine island 135 miles off the Palawan and inside the Philippines’ 200-exclusive economic zone. Manila learned about the construction only in February 1995 and then took a series of measures as a reprisal. Once Manila discovered their existence, Beijing claimed that these were shelters for fishermen. Manila argued that the structures resembled guard towers, including a satellite dish. Manila also sent vessels and aircraft that escorted photographers to Mischief Reef show the supposedly new ‘threat’ to Philippine territory, and provoked minor confrontations with Chinese ships. The Philippine military destroyed buoys set up by the Chinese in the contested area in order to deny any claim by Beijing that part, if not all, of the Spratly Islands belong to it.

(Clinton statement @ 00:38)

In 1996 diplomatic tensions ceased as the two countries signed a code of conduct, only for the issue to be once again revived in 1997 when Chinese warships were spotted around Mischief Reef and the Philippine-held Kota Island, also in the Spratlys. “Beijing’s apparent policy of seizing territory while avoiding actual conflict reinforced the Philippine view that China posed a long-term security challenge” (Cruz de Castro. China, the Philippines, and US influence in Asia. Pp. 2.) In spite of this, Beijing and Manila have attempted to improve security relations by a number of high profile visits, including Chinese Defense Minister Chi Haotian’s 2002 visit to Manila. In 2004, the Philippine Defense Secretary and his Chinese counterpart signed a Memorandum of Understanding on Defense Cooperation.

As Joyner explains,

“the South China has become a patchwork of conflicting national claims, most recently driven by geo-political considerations over development of potential hydrocarbon resources [...] The intractable and contentious nature of jurisdictional disputes over the Spratlys have prompted claimant states to take efforts to enforce their claims by stationing a permanent military presence in the archipelago.”

The Spratly Islands dispute could be catalogued as a “frozen dispute,” paraphrasing the “frozen conflict” term for unsolved conflicts in the post-Soviet world (like the breakaway region of Transnistria in Moldova in Southeastern Europe). It is unlikely that the Spratly dispute will be resolved in the coming years, even if the competitors chose to go to some international tribunal like the International Court of Justice or seek a third party mediator to determine the fate of the islands. The fact that the PRC is one of the competitors, however, raises the importance of the Spratlys. The increasing strength and technology of China’s military, along with a foreign policy which is seeking to project more of Beijing’s power abroad, makes the Spratly dispute of importance. Should Beijing gain control of the islands (as a whole or even a major fraction), it will have access to possible deep-water resources and control of the maritime area. Controlling the Spratlys would also mean for Beijing a type of 'forward' presence (as difficult as it may be to built anything on these rocks and tiny reefs, though it has occurred in the recent and not so distant past) in the South China Sea, which would most likely be seen as a security threat to Taiwan and US interests in South Asia. From this point of view, a Washington-Manila friendship is important to the US due to the Philippines’ geostrategical location.

As a relatively militarily weak state in an important geopolitical region, the Philippines is not able to stand as a fully neutral player in the geopolitical game going on around it. Because of its internal domestic affairs, Washington will have a continuous interest in war against Abu Sayyaf and any other extremist group which could be tied to Al Qaeda and the global Washington-labeled and spearheaded 'War on Terror.' At the same time, the Philippines are an important Washington ally as, along with Taiwan and Japan, help create a 'sanitary corridor' to oversee Chinese military operations and expansion.

The geographical position of the Spratly Islands make them important for the ongoing Asian 'expansion game.' Maritime trade going through the area as well as their practical use for naval bases are the two major reasons that make this group of islets and reefs relevant to events going on around them. The possibility of deepwater oil reserves, generally overlooked, may become a pressing reason for their control as oil needs of claimant states increase in the coming years and depleting reserves force them to look for new sources. There is already the case of Russian laying claim to chunks of the underwater Arctic, possibly to carry out oil drilling in the future.

Six nations claim the islands to different degrees, from partial control of specific islands (the Philippines) to full control (China, Vietnam). The domestic reality of each of the participant countries in this dispute, also varies. Manila has been successful so far at keeping control of the islands that it lays claim to, however without upgrading the armed forces’ equipment, it is doubtful if the country will be able to maintain control in the long term when necessity for resources and influence pushes the other stronger disputing countries to the Spratlys. Resolution of the Philippines’ numerous internal issues would naturally be a positive development for its foreign policy, not to mention for the Philippine population in general. It is difficult to be an influential player in the neighborhood if one’s home is a mess.

Cruz de Castro, Renato. (2005). Philippine Defense Policy in the 21st Century: Autonomous Defense or Back to the Alliance. Pacific Affairs. 78(3):403-422
Cruz de Castro, Renato. (2007). China, the Philippines and US influence in Asia. Asian Outlook. 2. July.
Cruz de Castro, Renato. (1999). Adjusting to the Post-US Bases Era: The Ordeal of the Philippine Military’s Modernization Program. Armed Forces & Society. 26(1):119-0138.
Joyner, Christopher., (1998). ‘The Spratly Islands Dispute: Rethinking the Interplay of Law, Diplomacy and Geo-politics in the South China Sea’ The International Journal of Marine and Coastal Law. 13(2):193-236.
Harrison, Selig. (1977). China, Oil and Asia: Conflict Ahead? New York: Columbia University Press

Please accept this article as a free contribution from this author, but if re-posting, please afford authorial and institutional attribution. Exclusive rights can be negotiated.