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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.

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Confusing "terrorist" acts with criminal violence cheapens the word. Lumping terrorists and criminals in the same conceptual group also makes it more difficult to design appropriate countermeasures to fight these groups, if "terrorists" and "criminals" are lumped conceptually together. The main motive of criminal groups is to make money; however horrific the means they employ, spreading terror is not a goal in itself. Terrorists, on the other hand, have stated political goals. Criminals have a vested interest in corrupting the state, not overthrowing it; and in many cases prefer to use corruption over violence as their primary tool. It's worth remembering that, even though some Mexican groups engage in brutal, violent acts that attract the attention of authorities, most criminal groups want to shun the spotlight: The fundamental intention is to undermine, not attack, the state, through bribes or the ballot box.

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The key point when Latin America's fight against organized crime became identified with the global "war on terror" was when Colombian authorities began using "Plan Colombia" money from the US to fight the FARC. The aid was originally designed as a counter-narcotics package, with a bulk of funds earmarked for coca eradication. Post-2002, attention shifted from eradicating efforts to providing Colombia with military assistance, primarily used to fight Colombia's largest guerrilla group. This was a big success: Thanks to US assistance, Colombia's Armed Forces doubled in size, and fought hard enough to push the FARC to the remoter corners of the country.

In Colombia, as in the US, the "war on drugs" became increasingly intertwined with the "war on terror," both in terms of policy and rhetoric. Just one day before the 9/11 attacks, Colombia's other major drug trafficking group, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), joined the FARC on the US foreign terrorist watchlist. Then-President Alvaro Uribe spoke relentlessly of the FARC's "narco-terrorism," posing himself as the region's keenest recruit to President George W. Bush's campaign. At no time was Colombia more in tune with US policy than the mid-2000s, when it stood in contrast with a slew of countries in Latin America who had elected leaders unwilling to declare solidarity with the US.

The fight against terrorism and that against organized crime have important parallels and overlaps. In Latin America, politically motivated groups like the FARC are increasingly taking on the characteristics of criminal gangs, while organized criminal groups, most notably Mexico's cartels, are threatening the state and carrying out such large-scale attacks that some describe them as insurgent. But, moving into the second decade after the 9/11 attacks, it is time for the US to define its Latin America security agenda in terms of the region's own threats, with an understanding of the synchronicities between terror and crime.

--- Elyssa Pachico is a writer for Insight – Organized Crime in the Americas, which provides research, analysis, and investigation of the criminal world throughout the region. Find all of her research here.

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