The legacy of 9/11 for Latin America
After 9/11, US agencies turned their attention toward the Middle East and away from the fight against organized crime in Latin America.
The tragedy of September 11, 2001, made terrorism the US's security priority for the following decade, and, in Latin America, this new focus on terror came at the expense of fighting organized criminal groups.Skip to next paragraph
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In some ways, 9/11 turned Latin America into a forgotten region for the US. Between 2000 and 2010, Central American nations received, on average, between $1 billion and $12 billion in military and police aid every year, with a few exceptions. Compare that with the $20 billion injection into Iraq at the peak of reconstruction efforts in the 2004 fiscal year.
Manpower – the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) – also turned away from the region. Getting money from Congress became a case of rejigging each department's stated priorities, so as to emphasize the "war on terror." In the 1990s, the best and brightest agency officers looked to make their careers fighting the so-called "war on drugs." After 9/11, counter-terrorism became far more career-enhancing than work on organized crime. Priorities shifted, and as a result during the 2000s Latin America essentially saw a "brain drain," as attention was refocused on Afghanistan and Iraq.
Arguably, the new emphasis on terrorism distracted attention from the fight against organized criminal groups, despite the security threat they pose – homicides, attacks against the state, and the compromise of democratic institutions. It's worth questioning whether the 9/11 terrorist attacks focused interest in fighting transnational terrorism, at the expense of confronting organized crime.
But framing the issue in this way ignores the multiple ways in which terrorists collude and conspire with criminals, and vice versa. Both types of groups thrive in areas where there is political instability and little state presence; the groups are also frequently linked when it comes to dealing with weapons and drugs.
In Latin America, the line between criminal activity and terrorism is increasingly blurred. A common description of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) is "narco-terrorists," while Mexican groups like the Zetas and the Familia Michoacana have been described as "insurgent" forces. If a Mexican gang member tosses a grenade in a crowded plaza, is that terrorism? What about the recent casino arson attack in Monterrey, which left 52 people dead?
In Mexico and Central America, the line between terrorism and organized crime is frequently obscured, and policy makers have at times inappropriately described violent (and non-violent) acts as "terrorism." In some ways, this is an insidious response to the position of Colombia just after 9/11, when the country continued to attract significant US resources even when the White House's attention shifted to Afghanistan and the Middle East. The "terrorism" label also helped justify the government's hardline retaliation against the group, something which Mexican President Felipe Calderon has tried to evoke.