By Adam Elkus
While most Americans are familiar with Al-Qaida, they’re less knowledgeable about a group spreading terror within U.S. inner cities: Mara Salvatrucha, also known as MS-13. Mara cadres have set up in many American cities, creating the beginnings of a national command hierarchy, with some Maras on the East and West coast reporting directly to and paying gang dues to leaders in Central America. Although the FBI and law enforcement agencies have tried to contain them using anti-racketeering statutes, which allow prosecutors to attack the structures of organized crime, the real problem lies beyond the border.
MS-13 is the product of the vicious Central American civil wars of the 1980s. Thousands fled north, many of them veterans of both sides. Unable to find work because of a lack of education, some of these refugees decided to leverage their combat skills to survive, forming Mara Salvatrucha. As a result of toughened immigration polices, U.S. officials deported MS-13 members to their countries of origin. However, this solution proved facile and politically expedient. After their return home, MS-13 members ruthlessly destroyed the local gangs and took control of huge swathes of Central American cities.
There are 70,000 Maras in Latin America. They operate loose, autonomous cells that form a broad transnational network. Individual cells are surprisingly sophisticated. In the cities and provinces they control, the Maras have carved out zones of autonomy, parasite structures within the larger state where they provide a rudimentary system of patronage and protection to the people in return for allegiance and tribute.
Paralyzed by a lack of resources and decades of authoritarianism, neglect, and economic disparity, Central American states have found it difficult to deal with this threat. The Maras are heavily armed with M16s, AK-47s and military grade explosives. Gang-related violence has risen to pandemic levels. In El Salvador alone, gang-related violence is responsible for 60% of all murders. Another fear is that the Maras will start to carve out a political identity, making the jump from criminal overlords to a fully functional, armed political movementwith the sole goal of loosening state authority to create a jungle of quasi-feudal narcostates.
The Maras are part of a troubling trend in Latin America: the rise of transnational gangs, narcotraffickers and terrorists. These actors have thrived in an environment where neoliberal economic policies have exacerbated traditional inequalities.
Gangs and Terrorists Challenge the State
In Brazil in May 2006, criminal groups took on the state itself in a twisted variation of the Tet offensive. The First Capital Command (PCC), a criminal network operating out of Sao Paulo, launched calculated assaults on police officers in Sao Paulo and across neighboring provinces, taking over prisons, carrying out drive-by shootings, ambushing police officers, storming police stations, buses, public transport systems and shopping centers. Their goal was to demonstrate to the government who was really in charge. The outgunned police were helpless against the PCC’s heavy machine guns and grenades. More than 100 prisons rioted 150 people died and millions were terrorized. The PCC’s power remains formidable, controlling more than 140,000 prisoners in Sao Paolo alone with 500,000 outside affiliates, which include lawyers, informants, drug dealers, bankers and gun runners. The PCC’s assault, however, is only one public example of increasing gang power. In the many slums (favelas) of Rio de Janeiro, local politicians only enter with the permission of gang leaders who deliver votes in exchange for patronage.
The tri-border region between Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina remains a lawless center where drug traffickers, criminals, money launderers, gun runners, and terrorists operate freely.
War, Corruption, and Neoliberalism
A century of poverty, violence, steep income imbalance, and corruption has taken their toll, disemboweling the features of the modern state. Goods, services, education, health care and basic governance remain out of reach for many. The gangs, terrorists and narco-criminals have prospered in the vacuum of authority.
The imposition of American-backed neoliberal economic policies on many countries in the region has been the last straw. According to John Rapley, “In many countries, [neoliberal policy] has skewed the distribution of income, leading to the emergence of pockets of vast wealth and areas of abject poverty. As the more prosperous players plug into a global economy and their production relies ever less on local labor, they retreat into secure enclaves protected by private security forces… Marginalized communities have essentially done the same thing, using a different kind of private security forcethe gangto maintain order in the global cities’ multiplying and expanding ghettoes.”
The FARC once fought for Communist revolution; now it fights to enjoy its drug profits in peace. Its counterparts in Latin American militaries exhibit a similar cynicism, pocketing drug money with the same enthusiasm they once reserved for hunting down and “disappearing” enemies of the state. In Guatemala, the military has actively protected narco-traffickers, with top intelligence officers profiting from criminal enterprises. A key advantage these forces have over governments is that they are also transnational, able to exploit informal lines of communication such as smuggling channels, migration routes, and trade links that are invisible to the state.
In many parts of Latin America, faith in a democracy that benefits the few remains tenuous. The people accept gangsters as the lesser of two evils, as a state that cannot protect its citizens or manifest any visible signal of its own legitimate right to rule will not command any allegiance. Meanwhile, American policymakers remain largely oblivious, conceiving of Latin American policy as merely a means to prevent a leftist resurgence. The neoconservative crusade in the Middle East and Central Asia has remained the principal obsession of foreign policy in American politics since 2001, and aside from the occasional controversy caused by the ramblings of Hugo Chavez, hardly any attention is paid by policymakers or the media to the rapidly growing instability next door.
The root cause of Latin American instability is the persistent inequalities that American foreign policies have helped to maintain. But with American policymakers obsessed with Iran and Iraq, little attention is being paid to the instability next door.
A State-Friendly Policy
Here’s a suggestion for American policy: stop treating Latin American states as enemies. Since the days of the Monroe doctrine, American presidents have focused on using force and subterfuge to bend Latin American states to the will of corporate interests. CIA-backed coups overthrew left-leaning rulers, a practice that continued under the Bush administration with its prominent backing for the 2004 coup that unseated Aristide and the 2002 attempted coup against Hugo Chavez. This gunboat diplomacy has weakened and corroded the very institutions necessary to prevent instability.
Washington is also fixated on destroying the sovereignty and cohesion of states through IMF and World Bank-approved policies that eliminate state assistance and control of vital industries. Such policies, rather than creating broad-based wealth in Latin America, have merely fattened the pockets of the upper crust.
The inevitable results of Washington’s policy of subversion cannot be defeated through military means. Huge sums of money are spent on “Plan Colombia,” the unsuccessful U.S.-Colombian joint military operation against Colombian coca growers, but relatively little on social programs that could reduce the appeal of the FARC and the drug trade. And merely building up a wall along the U.S. border won’t solve illegal immigration, drugs, and trans-national crime. In an age of free-flowing capital, human beings and contraband will also bypass national borders.
Ironically, the very leftist regimes Washington opposes, such as Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela and Evo Morales’s Bolivia, have had success dealing with poverty and instability through their social spending programs, flawed as they may be.
Given the negative role of American foreign policy in Latin America, some might argue that the best solution to these problems is to simply let Latin American states battle these problems on their own. This argument has some validity, especially in the light of the Bush administration’s recent bumbling attempts to counter the influence of left-leaning Latin American leaders. However, Amer-ica still can play a healthy role in ensuring hemispheric stability, as long as it engages Latin American states as partners rather than servants.
If American policymakers would listen to the concerns of their Latin American counterparts and embrace a more holistic policy targeted at resolving social problems, they might help end the chaos that coercive neoliberalism has enabled. Assistance to states should not take the form of massive military aid that is clearly ineffective against networked guerillas, terrorists, and narco-traffickers. Instead, U.S. policymakers should focus on changing the strategic environment that has enabled the rise of these guerrillas, facilitating development instead of dictating trade terms. Only by changing the strategic environment and shrinking the zones of disorder that have cropped up can Latin American states defeat these newly empowered guerrillas, criminals, and terrorists. Cooperation with states against non-state actors should encompass development and the strengthening of civil society and government, rather than a strict focus on counter-terrorism and military aid. U.S. policy-makers should also take care to avoid interfering in Latin American domestic politics, working in cooperation with states instead of trying to undermine their governments.
Ensuring hemispheric stability the right way is also in America’s national interest. In a networked world, instability from the south will spill over in the border, in the form of illegal immigration, gang crime, the drug trade, and other aspects of the illicit economy. Ignoring these problems inevitably leads to public backlash and support for harsh and ignorant solutions such as the “war on drugs.” By pro-actively helping Latin American states deal with social issues and security threats in a fundamentally progressive manner, America can atone for the mistakes of the past, protect its own interests, and help make Latin America safer and more prosperous.
FPIF contributor Adam Elkus is a freelance political writer and Huffington Post blogger (http://www. huffingtonpost.com/adam-elkus). His articles have appeared in Z Magazine, Common Dreams, and Counter-punch.