For years the Lebanese based radical organization known as Hezbollah has held a significant presence in South America. Its activities have ranged from terrorist acts waged against the Jewish community to working through criminal groups to further its goals.
Hezbollah has been building a presence in South America for years. Hezbollah has been linked to the 1992 attack on the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, which killed 29, and the 1994 attack on the AMIA Jewish center in Buenos Aires that killed 85 (jta.org).
Analysts today say Hezbollah represents a threat to Latin America and the world. In the Latin America region, Hezbollah works with local organized crime, facilitating their work while bribing politicians and officials. Hezbollah is locally involved in crimes including smuggling, violence, and corruption. For decades, the Lebanese arm of the terrorist organization, Hezbollah, operated relatively freely in the tri-border areas of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay. It does this through a series of front groups.
Governments in the region are now taking concrete measures against the Iran-backed Shiite militia. It does this through a series of front groups. One of these groups is Barakat Clan which is reputed to be involved in smuggling, counterfeiting money and documents, extortion, drug and arms trafficking, money laundering, and terrorism financing, UIF-AR stated in a release. It is suspected that the group raises funds for the Lebanese organization Hezbollah. In 2004, the U.S. Department of Treasury designated Barakat as one of the most prominent and influential members of Hezbollah (dialogo-americas.com).
Hezbollah’s fundraising network operates extensively in the area known as the Triple Frontier crossing between Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay. The Triple Frontier often is mentioned as a place linked to Hezbollah and the Barakat group and has been investigated over the past two decades as a source of money for Hezbollah and other groups’ activities related to terrorism. Argentina’s Financial Information Unit identified at least 14 people linked to the Barakat Clan who registered multiple crossings to Argentina, mainly through the Tancredo Neves International Bridge in the Misiones province. Once in Argentina, the clan members would cash in charges at a casino in Iguazú exceeding $10 million without declaring neither the income nor the discharge of funds when crossing the border (jta.org).
The Brazilian-Argentinian border in the TBA experiences approximately 40,000 transits per day. These include tourists visiting both sides of the world-famous Iguazu Falls and cross-border workers. Given such numbers, authorities cannot control each vehicle without bringing traffic to a halt. Without real-time intelligence, it is virtually impossible for Argentina’s authorities to catch large quantities of undeclared cash and thus prevent the exploitation of the casino, merely a hundred yards beyond Argentina’s customs station, for money laundering purposes. Members of the Barakat criminal network crossed the border hundreds of times with large quantities of cash and used the casino to convert the cash into chips and back – sometimes adding gambling wins in the process. Significant sums of money pass through the casino – more than 18 million Argentinian pesos, or about US$660,000. U.S. neglect of the region since the last round of designations in 2006 meant that U.S. sanction deterrence eroded over time. Hezbollah financiers continued their activities largely unmolested. Local authorities did little to stamp out Hezbollah’s terror finance networks once it became clear that the U.S. lost interest in the TBA (terrorism-info.org).
The activities of these criminal organizations extend beyond generating revenue for Hezbollah. Their practices also include activities aimed at a more discreet means of threatening the United States.
In 2011, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) indicted Ayman Saied Joumaa, a Lebanese-Colombian dual national whose global network of companies operate out of Latin America, West Africa, and Lebanon laundered money for Mexican and Colombian cartels to the tune of $200 million a month of drug proceeds. Joumaa worked with Hezbollah as the kingpin in one of many networks Hezbollah runs globally to sustain its financial needs. When his case came to light, the New York Times quoted a DEA official as saying that Hezbollah operated like “the Gambino’s” on steroids.
Increasing quantities of Schedule 2 drugs like cocaine invade the U.S. from Latin America, adding fuel to the opioid pandemic that has already cost so many lives. Cocaine consumption is as much a national epidemic as opioids and Hezbollah helps make it available to U.S. consumers.
This makes Hezbollah, its senior leadership, and its numerous operatives involved in running illicit drug-trafficking and money-laundering operations on a global scale the perfect candidates for Kingpin and Transnational Crime Organization designations, in addition to the terrorism and terror finance designations already in place. Hezbollah’s involvement in Latin America’s drug trade is significant and expanding. The group – often referred to as the “A-Team” of international terrorism – has reportedly formed partnerships with several of the region’s most notorious crime syndicates, including Mexico’s Zetas, Columbia’s FARC,5 and Brazil’s Primeiro Comando de la Capital. Drug trafficking cases involving Lebanese with suspected ties to Hezbollah are increasingly frequent. Evidence indicates that Hezbollah has ties that span the entire illicit narcotics supply chain. U.S. sanctions, as well as court cases in the United States and overseas, have targeted Hezbollah-linked operatives acting as logistical and financial service providers, traffickers, drug barons, distributors, and, most recently, suppliers of precursor chemicals used to refine cocaine. It seems only a matter of time before Hezbollah-run drug labs emerge, too – the kind that has long been at the center of the group’s operations in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley (docs.house.gov)).
Syrian national Nasif Barakat and the Barakat Transnational Criminal Organization has been connected, along with other groups, as a tentacle of the whole Hezbollah organization. The Barakat TCO is a human smuggling organization based in Homs, Syria, that facilitates the smuggling of Syrian and Lebanese nationals to the United States border using a variety of travel routes.
Since 2013, the Barakat TCO has facilitated the smuggling of hundreds of individuals to the Southwest border of the United States. Nasif Barakat is being designated for materially assisting, sponsoring, or providing financial, material, or technological support for, or goods or services to or in support of, the Barakat TCO, and for acting on behalf of the Barakat TCO (hardnoxandfriends.com).
Barakat and members of his TCO operate a global network of human smugglers that coordinate the smuggling of foreign nationals to the United States for an average cost of approximately $20,000; this sum includes fees to obtain fraudulent and/or counterfeit documents. Nasif Barakat often provides travelers with fraudulently obtained passports from many different countries, including European Union countries, to facilitate his clients’ global movement and smuggling to the United States.
Barakat engages in bribery to facilitate human smuggling. The Barakat TCO often utilizes a common route of travel which begins in Syria and transits Lebanon, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates subsequently arriving in and transiting certain South and Central American countries before reaching the Southwest border of the United States. The Barakat TCO’s smuggling activities are linked to other crimes including document fraud which can significantly impair appropriate vetting processes (home.treasury.gov).
In January 2017, the southern U.S. border was very porous. Border Patrol was standing down for the most part from arresting or holding illegals. There were reports of radical Islamic followers sneaking across our southern border often without often without challenges from media or Congress. In addition, there were more than a few sightings of bus and planeloads of “refugees” being transported by night and dropped at locations across the U.S. This may actually be continuing today as some reports are still being made by observers (hardnoxandfriends.com).
Hezbollah’s services come with a fee – and the money collected for acting as the cartels’ middlemen fuels their war machine in Syria, their arms buildup in South Lebanon, and their efforts to carry out terrorist plots abroad. Targets include both Latin America and the U.S., as illustrated by at least two known, recent cases (docs.house.gov).
Hezbollah has had a deep foothold in South America for decades. It has been a powerful threat to the United States as a terror organization. However, the danger it presents has been largely overshadowed by the more audacious acts carried out by the al Qaeda and ISIS organizations. This has allowed Hezbollah and the networks of Shia affiliates to develop and proliferate virtually unmolested by any security forces. A radical organization that receives significant support and training from Iran, Hezbollah operates extensively on a global scale with abilities to carry out highly sophisticated attacks as it has demonstrated several times in the past.
Though the organization has carried out several terrorist attacks in the region in the past, its current interests are not necessarily oriented towards such activities. Hezbollah’s primary political interests are Lebanon and service to Iranian intelligence. It is not likely that they will carry out any audacious attacks outside of the Persian Gulf. Based on intelligence, Hezbollah intends to use its South American networks for financial gain. The threat it will largely pose to the United States will be through its criminal activities transporting large quantities of narcotics, weapons, and people across the borders. However, this could change if Iran’s strategy shifts towards how it engages the United States or any other country in the Western Hemisphere. If that happens, Hezbollah becomes a powerful threat already thoroughly embedded in the American backyard.
See you in January. Have a Happy Holiday. J.E. Higgins
In recent years India has gradually shifted its position from supporting the U.S. policy towards Iran to re-establishing long held relations with its neighbor. This has led India to develop economic relations that openly violate the current sanctions held against Iran.
India has emerged as a serious economic power on a global scale making them, along with Russia, powerful allies that severely curb the effectiveness of U.S. economic power as a tool of diplomacy dealing with Iran.
External Affairs Minister of India had, during her annual press conference in May, stated very categorically India’s consistent political position that India does not recognize unilateral sanctions. Foreign Minister Zarif had visited India in May. As far as Iran’s nuclear program is concerned, India maintains a long-standing position which is to recognize Iran’s right to nuclear energy as well as the interest of the international community to see that Iran’s nuclear program is entirely for peaceful purposes. India is not a party to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action [JCPOA].
We have seen the developments which have taken place regarding the JCPOA, and it is our hope and desire that these issues would be resolved in a constructive manner. The two countries have a historical relationship. One they have been working to expand their economic and trade ties. When Iran was subjected to sanctions last time, India continued their cooperation to the extent they could (www.tehrantimes.com).
In October it was announced the implementation of the Chabahar port project. Chabahar is a joint project between India, Afghanistan, and Iran to develop the port located on the energy-rich Southern Coast of Iran. The port is designated as a primary transit and transport hub for all three countries that would allow them means to expand trade with the rest of South Asia. The project came into being after Pakistan closed off access to its own ports to India. This made a needed partner for the latter two countries and would provide Iran with significant influence in the region (economictimes).
The initiative between India and Iran is the long-planned Indian investment in the expansion and development of the port of Chabahar on Iran’s Arabian Sea coast. The project is central to India’s hopes to open a new transport corridor for Indian exports into Central Asia and Afghanistan that would bypass its main rival, Pakistan. India committed $500 million to the project as soon as it was clear that UN sanctions on Iran would be lifted.
Many see the proposed project as India’s answer to China’s development of Pakistan’s Gwadar port, which lies barely 100 km east of Chabahar on the Pakistani coast. India has also proposed ambitious investment plans for Chabahar’s development, including financing to build railways, roads, and fertilizer plants that could eventually amount to $15 billion. The deal is of interest to landlocked Afghanistan because the TTA would provide it with an alternative route to the seas, and hence strengthen its bargaining power with Pakistan by reducing its current dependence on the Karachi port (speri.dept.shef.ac.uk/).
The other significant issue at stake is the concern for energy. In October and November, India placed orders for around 1.25 million metric tons of oil each month. This works out to roughly 300,000 barrels per day. There are some Indian companies, particularly in the private sector, which have exposure to the American financial system and have stopped buying Iranian crude; that is to be expected. The U.S. has also announced exemptions to eight jurisdictions/countries and India is one of them. Despite this, India expects to continue buying Iranian crude around the above figure. (www.tehrantimes.com/news/).
Another major project is India’s proposed International North-South Transportation Corridor (INSTC), which would develop a network of ship, rail, and road routes for moving goods over 7,000 km from India’s western ports up to the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas, run north through Iran to its Caspian seaport of Bandar Anzali, then across the Caspian Sea to the Russian port of Astrakhan and on to markets in Russia, Europe, and Central Asia.
The INSTC, which is also seen as an Indian response to China’s BRI, would greatly reduce costs over the current shipping route which runs through the Suez Canal, the Strait of Gibraltar, and around the top of northern Europe (speri.dept.shef.ac.uk).
Iran and India have a deep and intertwining relation that is often misunderstood by the West. Historically, Iran and India have shared social, political, and economic ties. Until the British colonization of India, the court language of India was Persian. During colonization, relations between India and the rest of the world were subject to drastic changes and, consequently, contact between Iran and India decreased. Postcolonial political and cultural ties between the Shah of Iran and India were strong (www.mei.edu).
The West tends to view India and Iran one at a time, each in isolation. Until the partition of the sub-continent and creation of Pakistan in 1947, India and Iran had long shared a common border as neighbours with cultural and linguistic ties between the two ancient civilizations going back thousands of years. Following the end of the Cold War in the 1990s, bilateral relations between India and Iran improved, and the two nations signed a defense cooperation agreement in 2002. In 2006, the U.S. led an effort at the UN to impose international economic sanctions against Iran after it refused to suspend its uranium enrichment programme.
Following this, India was pressured by the U.S. to curtail its purchases of Iranian crude oil, despite its dependence on such imports. At one point, in 2009, India was pressured by the U.S. to vote against Iran and support sanctions at the UN. Despite this, India got the U.S. to give it waivers to continue purchasing oil from Iran, which the Obama administration allowed for a certain period. Additionally, India was forced to deposit Iranian payments in a bank account in Kolkata while it waited for sanctions to ease before being allowed to transfer the payments. These difficulties sometimes reduced trade relations to simple bartering in which India traded its rice for Iranian oil.
Following the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, signed between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and the European Union in 2016 which saw Iran agree to scale back its nuclear programme, the UN sanctions against Iran were finally eased and India began increasing its purchases of Iranian crude oil. India was also finally able to transfer nearly $6 billion in back payments for Iranian oil, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi held a bilateral summit with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in Tehran in May 2016 in an effort to renew relations. However, because separate unilateral U.S. sanctions remain in place, Indian banks with exposure in the U.S. remain reluctant to finance new Indian trade and investments in Iran (speri.dept.shef.ac.uk).
Several key issues shape the Iran-India relationship. Iran and India have the largest and the fourth largest Shi`i Muslim populations in the world, respectively. Therefore, they share a mutual concern over Sunni-Shi`i conflicts, especially in Pakistan. Through emphasizing these conflicts, New Delhi sees an opportunity to limit Pakistan's influence in international Islamic forums. In addition, Iran’s geopolitical position is significant for India, as it can counteract China's increasing presence throughout Asia and boost India's regional influence.
New Delhi is working with Tehran to open the Iranian port of Chabahar. The development of this port as well as Indian investment in infrastructure along Iran's border with Afghanistan not only helps India to counter the massive Chinese investment in Pakistan's Gwadar port but also boosts India's influence in Afghanistan which counters Pakistan's influence there. Lastly, Iran is rich in oil and gas reserves and thus can help meet India’s domestic energy needs and aid it in avoiding an overreliance on Saudi Arabia, which has had traditionally close ties with Pakistan.
Iran considers India significant for a number of reasons. First, India, like Iran, is an Asian country, and the two share historic, cultural, and ethnic links. India's foreign policy is also congruent with that of Iran; they are both opposed to U.S. unilateralism and a unipolar world. Following the New Delhi Declaration of 2003, Iran and India referred to each other as “strategic partners” and embarked on joint military exercises (www.mei.edu).
Between 2011-2012 both countries held several rounds of negotiations to discuss joint cooperation. During the meetings, views were exchanged on combating global terrorism, energy security, North South Transport Corridor, developments in Afghanistan and regional security and stability. During the visit, both sides exchanged the Instrument of Ratification for the Agreement on Transfer of Sentenced Prisoners signed in July 2010 thereby operationalizing the Agreement (mea.gov.in).
It is not solely economics that is driving India’s current policies with Iran. Beyond these distortions caused by the India-US-Iran triangle, there is a range of important proposed infrastructure projects on the horizon, all of which provide a window into other shifting geostrategic relationships across Asia.
All of them are a response to the super-ambitious China-led infrastructure plan to develop an expansive set of roads and railways that would cut across the Central Asian heartland and link China’s eastern seaboard with Russia and Europe as well as all of South Asia, known as the One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative, or now called the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). As the biggest infrastructure project ever proposed, the plan is historic, carries tremendous geostrategic implications, and could ultimately include over 60 countries.
However, the Indian government has refused to join the China-led endeavour. India is particularly angry that one small portion of the BRI, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, cuts across the Pakistan-controlled side of Kashmir, which India claims is legally part of its state of Jammu and Kashmir. Japan, which shares India’s concerns about the growing economic and military strength of China, is likely to partner with India on the development of the Chabahar port in Iran, as well as an adjoining special economic zone. In fact, as part of their response to China’s BRI, India and Japan are partnering in what they call the Freedom Corridor, which would create a new road, rail, and shipping routes that would stretch from South East Asia to Sri Lanka, Iran, and Africa (speri.dept.shef.ac.uk).
India is facing a complicated geopolitical situation that is forcing a relationship with Iran despite the objections of the U.S. The fear of an encroaching Chinese power in the region coupled with Pakistan’s hostility, cutting India off from their seaports makes it essential for India to make power plays for their own security and economic protection that go against U.S. interests.
This does not necessarily indicate that the power of U.S. economic sanctions are eroding. However, it does signify that the geopolitics India is dealing with in the region are taking precedence. And this does suggest that economic sanctions are becoming more problematic for the U.S. to use in situations dealing with Iran.
Inevitably, the U.S. must reevaluate its strategy to embrace the economic and strategic needs of allied countries. Otherwise, the long-term ramifications are that India may be driven further into an alliance with Iran. Given that Russia has been quick to capitalize on U.S. economic sanctions by offering itself as a seller and trading partner to sanctioned countries. The dangers of India being driven into such arrangements has the potential to undermine the U.S. strategy by giving rouge countries alternatives to conduct business. It could also undermine the U.S.’s own interest by narrowing the markets American companies have access to.
During the cold war, the Soviet Union and the United States used arms transfers and military assistance as one element in foreign and security policies that was primarily intended to further a political and ideological competition. But with the end of the cold war, the international arms trade no longer has the same politico-military underpinning.
In the late 1980s, the changes in foreign policy initiated by President Mikhail Gorbachev and Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze transformed the pattern of Soviet arms exports. After 1992, decisions by Russia about foreign, domestic and economic policy altered the size and pattern of arms exports even further. According to the Office of the President, in 1996 military-technical cooperation generated $2.5 billion in revenue of which $2.1 billion was in convertible currency and the rest in currencies that could not be freely converted. Russia also delivered arms and military equipment against debts owed to several foreign countries (www.sipri.org/publications/1998/russia-and-arms-trade).
The exports of black and gray arms represent between 5-15% of total weapons exports from Russia. For example, when the official exports of weapons and military equipment from Russia amounted to $3.8 billion in the early 2000s, the black and gray export was closer to $380 million. Russian merchants of death also have a large scale operation in the Middle East. Russia was accused of supplying arms to terrorist organizations such as Hamas, IG, and Hezbollah with the ruling Assad regime in Syria acting as an intermediary.
Syria has been in a state of civil war for many years with rebels trying to overthrow the pro-Kremlin regime. Since the beginning of the war, Russian arms supplies to Syria have grown exponentially. Moscow officially claims that deliveries are made on previous contracts, but it cannot explain why the number of these contracts suddenly increased many times over. In this case, there is real doubt that the weapons contracts are paid for, since it is no secret that the Assad regime is bankrupt and unable to buy the mountains of weapons supplied over these years from Russia, including small arms, anti-aircraft, and anti-ship missiles, C-SAM (ZRK S-300), tanks T-72 and T-80, and MiG-29 and Su-25 aircraft. And that doesn’t even include the cost of ammunition.
Israeli intelligence agencies have repeatedly implicated the Kremlin in the supply of weapons to Hezbollah, including rockets, ammunition, and small firearms. In fact, the IDF has actively prevented completion of several Kremlin plans for the armament of Hezbollah brokered by Assad. Israeli aircraft have repeatedly destroyed the anti-aircraft missiles S-300, anti-ship missiles Yakhont, and ground-to-ground missiles on Syrian territory that were intended for Hezbollah. Israeli forces seized Russian-made weapons, the ATGM Cornet, from Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip.
Russian smuggling in the Middle East is not limited to the supply of weapons to Hamas and Hezbollah. There are reasons to believe the Kremlin is also supplying weapons to the terrorist group ISIS. Russians could not transfer weapons to militants openly, because it officially recognized ISIS as a terrorist organization. Then there was a scam—a series of staged assaults by militants on the bases of Syrian government troops. Assad’s army retreated without a fight, leaving the entire base along with loads of weapons. Hence, this was a way to deliver arms under the guise of trophies. It is noteworthy that when the relationship between ISIS and the Assad regime went sour, attacks on government troops became violent and the weapons were destroyed (informnapalm.org/).
By 2015, the US was first in value of all arms deliveries made around the world, at a value of $16.9 billion or 36.62% of the total. The US and Russia made up just over half of all arms transfer agreements to developing world countries. Each year, between 2008 and 2015, two or three major suppliers made most of the arms transfers to that market. It was the eighth year in a row that the US was first in this category, and Russia was second in each of those eight years.
Russia is able to offer a variety of munitions, from low-tech gear to advanced weapons systems. It has sold combat aircraft and main battle tanks to China and India and made arms deals with the likes of Malaysia, Burma, and Algeria. Moscow has focused its recent arms-sales efforts on Latin America, where Venezuela has been a principal buyer. Russia has also worked to make it's weapons deal terms more flexible and to improve its follow-on services to clients (www.businessinsider.com/us-russia-global-arms-sales-2016-12).
Recently the issue that has come between the US and Russia is the sale of the S-400 air defense system. The S-400 Triumph (NATO reporting name: SA-21 Growler) is an air defence missile system developed by Almaz Central Design Bureau of Russia. The S-400 Triumph air defence system integrates a multifunction radar, autonomous detection and targeting systems, anti-aircraft missile systems, launchers, and command and control centre. It is capable of firing three types of missiles to create a layered defence. The system can engage all types of aerial targets including aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), and ballistic and cruise missiles within the range of 400km, at an altitude of up to 30km. The system can simultaneously engage 36 targets. The S-400 is two-times more effective than previous Russian air defence systems and can be deployed within five minutes. It can also be integrated into the existing and future air defence units of the Air Force, Army, and the Navy. Russia intends to supply export versions of the S-400 Triumph system to the armed forces of China. Turkey also expressed interest in purchasing S-400 air defence systems (www.army-technology.com/projects/s-400-triumph-air-defence-missile-system/).
Russia’s ability to sell its S-400 air defense system to several different countries in different theaters illustrates the geopolitics of this particular system. Despite US sanctions on the Russian defense company Almaz-Antey, Moscow is offering or has sold the S-400 to a number of countries, including NATO member Turkey. The US is also watching closely for other S-400 sales to countries such as Algeria, Belarus, Iran, and Vietnam, thus reducing the American sphere of influence and boosting Russia’s ability to arm, equip, and train other countries’ air defense capabilities regardless of the theater. The key issue here is what the US will do given the defense requirements of other countries who want to continue to do defense business with Moscow. Both Turkey and, in particular, India now stand out (www.arabnews.com/node/1390056). The U.S. aggressive stance has also set it at further odds with China.
The Trump administration imposed sanctions on the Chinese military on Thursday for buying fighter jets and missile systems from Russia in breach of a sweeping US sanctions law punishing Moscow for meddling in the 2016 US election. The US State Department said it would immediately impose sanctions on China’s Equipment Development Department (EDD), the military branch responsible for weapons and equipment, and its director, Li Shangfu, for engaging in “significant transactions” with Rosoboronexport, Russia’s main arms exporter. The sanctions are related to China’s purchase of 10 SU-35 combat aircraft in 2017 and S-400 surface-to-air missile system-related equipment in 2018, according to the State Department. In Beijing, the Chinese government expressed anger and demanded the sanctions be withdrawn (www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-russia-sanctions/u-s-sanctions-china-for-buying-russian-fighter-jets-missiles-idUSKCN1M02TP).
This intelligence site has previously reported that Russia is building its economic base and influence in the world by availing itself to countries under US or UN sanctions as a viable trading partner. Based on this strategy it is using its arms business to further undermine the effectiveness of US sanctions and bolster its own position as a sphere of influence in the world.
It is also a source of revenue for the Russian economy they will continue to foster through both legitimate sales and black-market deals. In the long run, Russia’s arms sales will constitute a serious threat for the United States. In addition to eroding the effectiveness of US sanctions, technology such as the S-400 changes the battlefield dynamics by enhancing the defenses of hostile countries. The fact that Russia has been willing to turn a blind eye or actively encourage an illicit market to further their customer base explains how important the arms market has become for them.
The US needs to recognize that Russia’s arms business is only going to expand and proliferate, especially to countries and groups that are sanctioned by the US. Russia has grown to become the second largest arms merchant in the world just behind the United States. In time it is capable of becoming the largest, thus Russia will remain a significant threat to US authority. In response, the US needs to start developing more diverse measures and threats to deal with foreign adversaries; measures that do not rely solely on sanctions. It will also have to deal with adversaries that will be able to obtain more sophisticated weapons because of this.
In the last few years, China has showed a serious signs of expanding its interest into central and southern Asia. This is a large part of their modern security strategy. Their concern is that Afghanistan will become a stronghold for Islamic separatists threatening their western regions (Eden, 2018). China’s greatest fears and motivation all center on unrest and a perceived threat to overall national security arising out of Xinjiang. The traditionally Muslim-majority province has been a source of pronounced concern for Beijing for decades (thediplomat.com/).
For Beijing, instability in Central Asia in general and Afghanistan in particular is a matter of concern. It is seen to have a “direct influence” on the security of China’s western provinces, particularly Xinjiang. The East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) is known to have bases in Tajikistan and Afghanistan, and Beijing has been apprehensive over ETIM fighters and other jihadists entering Xinjiang through Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor to radicalize Uyghurs or carry out attacks in China (thediplomat.com/).
Badakhshan, an Afghan province in the far eastern part of the country is of particular interest. The government is worried this region will become a safe haven for Uyghur terrorists who are the primary threat in the western region (Eden, 2018). Along the 76-kilometre border between Afghanistan and China, a massive gorge is located on the Chinese side, where Chinese Muslims live, who are closely watched by the Chinese authorities. During the rule of the Taliban, large groups of Chinese Uyghurs were seen among foreign militants under the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. They had obviously received good military training in the Al-Qaeda camps. Today many are still active now, and not only in the ranks of the Taliban. Many have blended among different groups of foreign mercenaries, which could create great problems for the Chinese authorities. China, with the help of the army and law enforcement agencies in Afghanistan, has been trying to prevent the penetration of Uyghur militants into its territory, most of which have so far joined the IS. Law enforcers assume that that the largest group of Uyghur militants already reside in the Afghan province of Badakhshan and can make a rapid shift to China (enews.fergananews.com/).
The Chinese government has for decades tried to push back against a separatist movement by Uighurs to establish an independent state called East Turkestan. Uighurs accuse the government of forcing demographic changes by settling millions of Han Chinese in the region. The government crackdown increased in recent years because of the rise of the Islamic State and fears of expansion by the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) or Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which China accuses of being behind several terrorist attacks in the country (www.aopnews.com/human-rights/).
The Afghan delegation, led by Defence Minister Tariq Shah Bahrami, visited China during which the parties agreed to build the base. Tariq Shah, with his Chinese colleague General Chang Wanquan and other military officials, discussed security issues and agreed to cooperate on fighting terrorism in the Afghan province of Badakhshan and the entire northern region. The agreement has specified that the Chinese side covers all material and technical expenses for this base: weaponry, uniforms for soldiers, military equipment and everything else necessary for its functioning (enews.fergananews.com/).
China has promised to provide $85 million for the Afghan army to create a mountainous brigade for the protection of the Badakhshan border (ariananews.af/).
The Afghan Defence Ministry said that preparations for the start of construction of a military base in Badakhshan by Afghan military experts has already begun. A special commission established will determine the location of the base, construction costs, and other technical issues (enews.fergananews.com/).
In a formal briefing by the Chinese Ministry of Defense, a brief explanation was given:
"According to the information provided by relevant departments, the law-enforcement departments of China and Afghanistan, in accordance with the agreement of strengthening border law enforcement cooperation between the two sides, have been conducting joint law enforcement operations in areas bordering both countries in recent years, in order to jointly prevent and fight against terrorism activities and organized transnational crimes. I’d like to point out that the report of some foreign media that the Chinese military vehicles entered Afghanistan for patrol is untrue."
Chinese Foreign Ministry has denied media reports stating that Beijing was constructing a military base in Afghanistan to combat terrorism. Though newspapers have reported citing sources that China had started building a training camp for Afghan servicemen to support Afghanistan’s counterterrorism efforts (www.aopnews.com/china-afghanistan-relations/).
Afghans consider China to be their traditional friends and trustworthy neighbors; ones which have increasingly proven to share their wisdom and wealth with others, who need them the most. The trilateral dialogue was a manifestation of China’s ongoing efforts to build confidence, friendship, and consensus among its neighbors for the pursuit of win-win goals against an entrenched zero-sum mentality, moving toward a shared future of sustainable peace, security, and stability throughout the region (thediplomat.com/). China has had a long history with Afghanistan going back to the cold war.
The 1979 invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union prompted an international response to support the indigenous Mujahideen groups that formed to fight the Soviets. Chief among the nations supplying money and arms by 1980 were the United States, Pakistan, China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and, secretly, the U.K. In 1980, China would, incredibly, receive military support from the United States to combat the threat from both the Soviet Union and Afghan Communists. Over the next several years, China would train anti-Soviet Afghan Mujahideen forces, and provide millions of dollars of weaponry to them (thediplomat.com/). And, it has continued to play a significant role.
It was in early 2015 that China began facilitating talks between the Ghani government and the Taliban. However, the efforts made little progress, partly because of deteriorating relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan on account of continuing Taliban attacks in Kabul. Recognizing that its efforts to get the Taliban to the negotiating table would make no progress so long as Pakistan and Afghanistan remained at loggerheads, China set out to bring Pakistan into its peace efforts. Beijing engaged in several rounds of shuttle diplomacy between Islamabad and Kabul to put in place a trilateral crisis management mechanism. In December 2017, Beijing hosted trilateral talks where the three countries called on the Taliban to join the process. (thediplomat.com/).
From the Afghan perspective, the security threats that contribute to increased instability in the region also extend to the rest of the world, because they emanate from a dangerous nexus of violent extremism by transnational terrorist networks (TTNs), organized crime by transnational criminal networks (TCNs), as well as state sponsorship of terrorism. Indeed, the symbiotic relationships among these lethal networks of terror and crime involve mutual benefits in the form of facilities and capabilities like protection, logistics, financing, training, arms, intelligence, and safe havens.
In the Afghan case, these enable the Taliban and the Haqqani Network to destabilize Afghanistan. And the ensuing regional instability has provided an enabling, operational environment for such terrorist networks as al-Qaeda, Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISKP), the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), and others to launch targeted terrorist attacks in the region and beyond (thediplomat.com/). Security is not Chinas only interest in the country.
China signed the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Good Neighborly Relations with Kabul in 2006. Two years later, Chinese companies won a $3 billion contract to extract copper from the Mes Aynak mines in Logar province. An unstable Afghanistan could derail China’s economic ambitions. Success of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as well as its flagship China-Pakistan Economic Corridor hinges on a stable neighborhood, which in turn depends on a stable Afghanistan. China is Afghanistan’s biggest foreign investor today. It is interested mainly in resource extraction and infrastructure building. It has started extracting oil from the Amu Darya basin in northern Afghanistan. In the telecommunications sector, China’s role has grown from supplying Afghanistan with telecom equipment in 2007 to the construction of fiber-optic links in 2017. Under the BRI, Afghanistan’s road and rail infrastructure would increase, providing this landlocked country with links to more markets (thediplomat.com/). Though China’s activities have been towards the goal of stability it has also created complications.
Because China shares no direct border with Afghanistan it has had to work through intermediate countries to develop it supply network. Doing so they have had to cultivate relations with countries like Tajikistan, a former Soviet republic that separates Afghanistan and China. It has spent that last several years cultivating relations with the country to include building a series of military posts along the border, helping train Tajik troops and taking part in joint training exercises. This has created strife with the Russians, who still consider all their old Central Asian republics their territory. It is assumed that this is steadily leading to an escalation competition for influence in the region. To this effect it is presumed that the Russians may be trying to undermine China’s efforts at expansion in the region by supplying weapons to the Taliban (Eden, 2018). China’s economic development strategy has also met with poor results.
China’s economic ambitions in Afghanistan have not gone well. The Mes Aynak project, for example, has failed to take off largely because of the poor security situation in the country. A railway line linking China’s Jiangsu province and the Afghan rail port of Hairatan, which would have reduced travel time and costs substantially, runs empty from Afghanistan to Uzbekistan on its return route, as Afghanistan’s production of goods for export remains low. Under the BRI, Afghanistan’s road and rail infrastructure would increase, providing this landlocked country with links to more markets. But road and rail lines built under the BRI could suffer the same fate as the Jiangsu-Hairatan railway line: crippled by Afghanistan’s low export capacity (thediplomat.com/).
Conclusion: The future of China’s role in Afghanistan will be continuous but limited. It will seek to maintain influence with the national government in Kabul through its connections with Pakistan and sizeable economic investments there. However, having witnessed the decade long campaign that left the U.S bogged down in the country, China will limit any military involvement solely to the regions they feel most threatened by. The level of military involvement has yet to be fully understood. It is likely that it will change over time based on the circumstances in the western regions of their own country.
China should not be looked at as a potential partner for stabilizing the region. The investments and development projects have been more towards creating a viable trading partner than being a stabilizing force. They have no interest in doing any more than what is either economically advantageous or tied directly to their immediate security. While China is seeking to build itself into a dominate force in the region and develop viable security it also fears becoming bogged down in a costly military excursion such as what the U.S recently endured. They also step lightly dealing with the Russians who see themselves as the reigning power in Central Asia. That said, they will, while treading lightly, pick their battles not just in Afghanistan but in Central Asia. They will also work heavily, through soft power, to influence governments and trying to develop proxies they can use to enhance their position.
Eden, Steve, Badakhstan Converging Tensions, Modern War Magazine, issue 37 September-October 2018.
With the withdrawal of US and allied forces from the Afghan region, China and neighboring countries have stepped in to assert influence in the hopes of bringing some form of viable stability.
In The Higgins Report for October, I investigate developing military and economic ties between China and Afghanistan with China's long-term intention of influence building.
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The threat of ISIS in Iraq has largely subsided, and the country is left in a complicated state. During the conflict, the ISIS threat virtually neutralized the Iraqi army and forced the populace to turn their reliance towards the array of Shiite militias that arose to fill the security gap. Now, the Shiite militias have emerged as the dominant military force surpassing even the authority of the government.
In 2014, the so-called Islamic State took over about one-third of Iraq’s territory, including Mosul, the country’s second-largest city. At the time, there was a genuine fear that the predominantly Sunni fighters of the Islamic State were close to capturing Baghdad. National security forces were in no position to subdue the threat. Since 2003, the Iraqi government has faced ups and downs in its attempt to rebuild its security apparatus following the near collapse of Iraq as a unitary state. The disbanding of the army has affected the government’s ability to claim a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. Since then, the fundamental theme has been the relationship between Iraq’s central government and the substate or non-state military actors.
When the war against the Islamic State began in 2014, Iraq’s security apparatus collapsed leading many volunteer fighters to join paramilitaries rather than the weakened military or police forces. These substate forces were grouped under an umbrella organization called the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), or al-Hashd al-Shaabi in Arabic. Tens of thousands of Iraqis have volunteered for military service. The group includes over 60,000 fighters. Others estimate that the number ranges from 60,000 to 140,000 fighters (http://carnegie-mec.org/).
Popular Mobilization Forces/Units/Committee (PMF/PMU/PMC) is an Iraqi state-sponsored umbrella organization composed of some 40 groups, almost exclusively Shiite. The People’s Mobilization Forces was formed for deployment against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. The organization was formed by uniting existing forces under the “People’s Mobilization Committee” of the Iraqi Ministry of Interior in June 2014. The PMF was formed by the Iraqi government on 15 June 2014 after Marja’ Ali al-Sistani’s fatwa on “righteous jihad” on 13 June. The fatwa called for defending Baghdad and to participate in the counter-offensive against the Islamic State, following the Fall of Mosul on 10 June 2014. The Popular Mobilization Forces consist of both new volunteers and pre-existing forces. These forces have been grouped within the umbrella organization formerly under the control of the Ministry of Interior Popular Mobilization Units directorate. Among these forces are the Peace Companies, previously known as the Mahdi Army, Kata’ib Hezbollah, Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada, Kata’ib al-Imam Ali, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and the Badr Organization (www.alhashdalshaabi.com/).
Many who perceived the PMF to be a security asset and a savior in the struggle against the Islamic State in 2014, when the Iraqi army was in shambles, now view it as more of a liability and menace to the country’s political and security status quo. Following the battle to retake Mosul, Iraq faces key challenges involving the PMF that will profoundly shape the country’s future. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International reports, for example, have accused it of committing war crimes. Moreover, to many critics, the PMF symbolizes Iranian and Shia efforts to exercise supremacy over Iraq.
Tehran has had a clear hand in coordinating with the PMF leadership, which frequently meets and consults with Qassem Suleimani, the commander of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Even Muqtada al-Sadr, whose paramilitary unit falls under the PMF, has referred to the PMF as al-militiat al-waqiha (the Imprudent Militias). Clerics from the Najaf Hawza (the Najaf Seminary), including Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who is Iraq’s leading Shia religious leader, also criticize the monopolistic conduct of certain PMF leaders, particularly Abu Mehdi al-Muhandis (carnegie).
Known widely by his nom de guerre Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes is Jamal Jaafar Ibrahimi, the leader of Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH), an Iranian-sponsored Shiite militia operating primarily in Iraq. In addition to acting as the leader of KH, Ibrahimi serves as Iraq’s deputy national security advisor and the deputy commander of the Haashid Shaabi, the umbrella group of anti-ISIS Shiite militias also called Iraq’s popular mobilization forces (PMF). According to Iraqi Major-General Jumaa Enad, Ibrahimi today is also realistically and operationally the leader of the PMF.
Muen al-Kadimi, deputy leader of another Shiite militia in Iraq, the Badr Organization, confirmed that Ibrahimi is one of the highest-level commanders in the PMF, saying that Ibrahimi signs off on things. He is also a former member of the Iraqi parliament. Ibrahimi has for years been linked to a series of deadly crimes. In 2007, a Kuwaiti court sentenced Ibrahimi to death in absentia for his involvement in the 1983 U.S. and French embassy bombings in Kuwait, attacks that killed six and injured nearly 90 others. Ibrahimi has also been linked to the 1985 assassination attempt of Kuwait’s Emir.
Ibrahimi believes in establishing a Shiite theocracy and considers himself to be a representative of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei according to Iraqi lawmaker Mishaan Jbouri. He reportedly serves as an adviser and “right-hand man” to Iran’s military envoy to Iraq, the IRGC-Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani. For years, he worked alongside Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the Badr Organization (previously called the Badr Corps).
After the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, Ibrahimi helped smuggle in a certain kind of improvised explosive device (IED) known as explosively formed penetrators (EFPs) from Iran into Iraq. EFPs were the primary killer of U.S. troops in Iraq from 2003 to 2011 (https://www.counterextremism.com/).
Two factors played a significant role in building the militia power. One-third of Iraq was occupied at the time. Iraq president Maliki found the state’s large bureaucracy inefficient, given its mandate under a sectarian quota system (muhasasa ta’ifiya), which included members from all major Kurdish, Shia, and Sunni political parties. Having loyal Shia militias, rather than the shaky cross-ethnic makeup of the Iraqi army, seemed a much more reliable way to secure a tighter command and control structure.
Immediately after the Iraqi army’s collapse in June 2014, Maliki signed an official decree to form the Commission for the Popular Mobilization Forces (Hay’at al-Hashd al-Shaabi). The state’s inability to cope with the Islamic State threat led many to rely on the paramilitaries.
Another domestic factor that legitimized the paramilitaries was Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s wajib al-kifai fatwa, which his most senior clerical representative, Abdul Mehdi el-Karbalai, conveyed in June 2014. Paradoxically, the legitimization this fatwa furnished was an unintended consequence of Sistani’s order, which had called on all Iraqi citizens to volunteer to join the “security forces.” This was a direct reference to the army and federal police, rather than the seven militias that had been operating alongside Maliki’s government. Sistani’s interference had made the PMF a sacred institution in the eyes of the Iraqi population.
Maliki and his allies pursued a wide-ranging campaign to recruit volunteers through hundreds of centers and offices. This recruitment was predicated on a smear campaign against the very Iraqi army that they had created—the same army that the fatwa had supposedly demanded the volunteers’ join. For Maliki and his supporters, the fatwa allowed the original seven paramilitaries, along with other groups created thereafter, to emerge from clandestine or semi-clandestine anonymity. It gave them legitimacy, which gave them access to the public through their own radio and television networks, as well as Facebook and Twitter accounts; these groups now had their own legitimate names, logos, and publically displayed photographs. In short, Maliki used Sistani’s fatwa to give official sanction to these groups for the first time and allowed them to operate out in the open with full state funding.
The PMF groups maintain broad popularity among Iraqi society. The paramilitary outfits are particularly popular among the country’s Shia population. An August 2015 poll claims that 99 percent of Shia respondents support the use of the PMF to fight the Islamic State. Up to 75 percent of men between eighteen and thirty years old living in Shia-majority provinces had signed up to enlist in the PMF by the spring of 2016. Volunteers flocked from all of Iraq’s Shia provinces to enlist, the PMF recruited roughly ten times more volunteers than the Iraqi security forces.
For the emerging volunteers, it was also easier to sign up via political party structures than through the PMF Commission, which was still part of a fledgling state and lacked recruitment offices. In contrast, almost all Shia Islamist parties and even individual clerics or members of parliament had established registration centers. Because the state itself did not have enough offices to register volunteers for the Iraqi army and police forces, volunteers joined paramilitary groups, many of which, including the original seven, enjoyed preexisting recruitment mechanisms.
The PMF, however, is far from a cohesive operation. The PMF contains three distinct factions, based on various subgroups’ respective allegiances to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and Muqtada al-Sadr. It remains possible that the PMF’s fractious makeup—its sundry groups with sundry objectives—may serve as a safety valve to ensure that the organization is not used to take over the state. The groups under Sistani and under Sadr will work to make sure that the PMF’s Maliki-allied leadership does not use the sacredness of the PMF brand to retake the state (carnegie).
One of the most divisive issues amongst the militias is the involvement of Iran. Muqtada al-Sadr, who once led violent campaigns against the US occupation that ended in 2011, has emerged as a nationalist opponent of powerful Shia parties allied with neighboring Iran and as a champion of the poor. Al-Sadr's alliance comprising of communists and secular Iraqis has announced it is fiercely opposed to any foreign interference in Iraq - whether Tehran's or Washington's (www.aljazeera.com/news/).
Muqtada al-Sadr’s Peace Regiments (Saraya al-Salam) were founded right after the notorious June 2014 massacre at Camp Speicher. In effect, this was a rebranding of the JAM (Sadr’s group), which had been suspended in 2008 but had kept many of its cadres, expertise, and social networks intact. They were easily remobilized because Sadr had more experience with paramilitaries than other paramilitary leaders. The Sadrist movement, and by extension its paramilitary, derives legitimacy from its presence on the ground in Iraq before 2003. Unlike many other political parties and military wings, the Sadrists were not part of the diaspora elite that returned to Iraq following the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. The movement has stayed close to ordinary Iraqi citizens rather than the country’s elites. It weds nationalism with homegrown clerical authority from the Sadr family name and is now portraying Muqtada as a theological authority rather than a political leader.
Another PMF faction includes several apolitical paramilitaries that swear allegiance to Sistani. They were formed strictly by Sistani’s fatwa to defend Shia holy sites and lands from the so-called Islamic State. Their priority is to keep Shia areas safe and to obey Sistani’s will—this includes a willingness to eventually disband or be integrated into the Iraqi armed forces. According to several of these groups’ leaders and members, they will disband as soon as the threat of the Islamic State subsides. Their priority is to keep Shia areas safe and to obey Sistani’s will—this includes a willingness to eventually disband or be integrated into the Iraqi armed forces.
However, the most powerful groups in the PMF are those that maintain strong links with Tehran and pledge spiritual allegiance to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. As such, they have been groomed by Iran as reliable political and military allies; therefore, they benefit from greater funding and more supplies from Tehran than other groups in the PMF. This pro-Khamenei group includes a number of relatively small paramilitaries that Iran has created, which serve as proxies for Tehran. In fact, they are arms of Iran’s IRGC and the Iranian foreign intelligence agency, Itilaat. These better-known elements of the pro-Khamenei faction consist of local right-wing Iraqi militant wings that have also become political actors. Their military resources—including heavy armor, drones, and military advisers—all come from Tehran. Their cash and political legitimacy come from Baghdad. These paramilitaries are either full-fledged political parties or in the process of establishing political representation in the lead-up to Iraq’s planned 2018 provincial and parliamentary elections.
For its own part, Iran prefers to keep a strong set of paramilitary allies that could check the Iraqi state if Baghdad ever were to pursue anti-Iran policies. Most groups affiliated with Sistani and Sadr, however, have expressed a willingness to integrate into the state apparatus, or even to disband all paramilitaries. (http://carnegie-mec.org/). Though Sadr has been a critic and deterring factor towards Iranian power encroachment, recent activities presuppose a shift in his position.
In June of this year Iraq's Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr announced a surprise alliance with pro-Iranian political bloc led by Hadi al-Amiri in a bid to form a government after last month's elections resulted in a hung parliament. At a joint press conference with Amiri in the Shia holy city of Najaf, Sadr hailed the formation of a true alliance to accelerate the formation of a national government away from any dogmatism.
Sadr and Amiri are strange bedfellows. Sadr, who once led violent campaigns against the US occupation that ended in 2011, has emerged as a nationalist opponent of powerful Shia parties allied with neighboring Iran and as a champion of the poor. Amiri, a fluent Persian speaker, is Iran's closest ally in Iraq, having spent two years in exile there during the era of former President Saddam Hussein. The Fatah alliance he led in the election was composed of political groups tied to Iran-backed Shia armed groups who helped government forces defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) fighters (//www.aljazeera.com/). This recent alliance assumes a shift in the political alliance. One that is difficult to assess and place into future context.
Even with Sadr and Sistani in positions of great influence in Iraqi politics, it is clear that Iran holds dominating control over Iraq. The recent alliance between the Sadr and Amiri factions is still too new to draw any serious conclusions. However, it does cast concerns about whether Sadr will be a serious deterrent to the country being transformed into a virtual puppet state of Iran.
It is clear the militias will not disband any time soon. The Iraqi Shiite population, like much of the country, still has no confidence and trust in either the state or government security forces. As such, the militias continue to be seen as the better option for protecting the country in its weakened state from the likes of ISIS or the next such group that they anticipate emerging to threaten them. It is highly probably they will remain as the dominate force in Iraq, even superseding the authority of the government.
The image of the United States is not good and any faction that opposes Iran just as strongly opposes US involvement. This limits options for the US if it has any agenda to thwart Iran’s power growth.
The election of Andrés Manuel López Obrador to the presidency of Mexico has signaled a change in policy toward combatting drug cartels. The policy of the last decade has been to approach the problem through the use of military force. President Obrador has called to remove the military from such duties through a gradual reduction of forces from the mission (mexiconewsdaily.com/).
For the last decade, the Mexican government has approached the drug cartels operating in the country as largely a military threat and have attempted to destroy their influence through military force. Statistics show the federal government deployed 52,807 soldiers to fight Mexico’s notorious drug cartels last year ─ the highest number in the 12-year war on drugs. The record deployment was spread across several states in various regions of the country. Former president Felipe Calderón launched the military-based crime-fighting strategy shortly after he took office in December 2006 by sending 6,500 troops into his home state of Michoacán. During 2007, his first full year in office, 45,000 soldiers were deployed across the country. The size of the deployment was increased to 48,650 in 2009 as the number of soldiers, Marines, and Federal Police losing their lives in confrontations with organized crime continued to grow.
With more than 29,000 homicides, 2017 was also the most violent year in at least two decades while more than 200,000 people have been murdered in the 12 years since the crackdown on cartels began, leading many observers to conclude that the war on drugs strategy has failed. The violence of the cartels has turned several states within the country into virtual war zones.
One of the main targets of these expeditions has been the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG) (mexiconewsdaily.com/).It is known for its aggressive use of violence, and its public relations campaigns. This criminal group moved drug shipments and managed finances for the Sinaloa Cartel operating primarily in the states of Jalisco and Colima and later extending into Michoacán and Mexico City. The group has been associated with the use of extreme violence. In the period following the emergence of the CJNG, homicides spiked in Jalisco. The cartel also made it one of its early missions to battle the Zetas drug trafficking organization in Veracruz state, under the name “Matazetas,” or “Zetas Killers,” which, depending on the source, is described as either another name for the CJNG or a special cell of the group responsible for assassinations. The group claimed responsibility for a 2011 massacre of 35 people in Veracruz and a month later security forces recovered the corpses of another 30-plus apparent victims of the group.
In April 2015, the CJNG killed 15 Mexican police officers during an ambush in Jalisco state, one of the single deadliest attacks on security forces in recent Mexican history. The group was also blamed for an attack in March 2015 that killed five federal police. Additionally, Mexican officials have previously indicated that the group possesses highly sophisticated armaments. Machine guns and grenade launchers were used to conduct the March 2015 attack. In May 2015, the group continued its deadly streak, shooting down a military helicopter on May 1, and launching a wave of violence across Jalisco.
The CJNG has also been known to appeal to the Mexican citizenry with idealistic propaganda, invoking solidarity and promising to rid its areas of operation of other crime syndicates, such as the Zetas and the Knights Templar another sworn enemy. The CJNG operates in at least in 22 states: Aguascalientes, Baja California Sur, Baja California, Chiapas, Chihuahua, Nuevo León, Puebla, Querétaro, Quintana Roo, San Luis Potosí, Sinaloa, Tamaulipas, Jalisco, Colima, Michoacán, Guanajuato, Morelos, Nayarit, Guerrero, and Veracruz, plus Mexico City and the State of Mexico. The cartel also allegedly has contacts in Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Central America, and the United States and uses these connections to traffic marijuana, cocaine, and synthetic drugs. Recent arrests suggest that the Cuinis, the alleged money laundering arm of the CJNG, may have established operations in Brazil and Uruguay. The CJNG’s assets are thought to be worth over $20 billion (insightcrime.org/).
In May of this year, the cartel was suspected for an attack on the former attorney general of Jalisco that was followed by gunfire and narco-blockades on the streets of Guadalajara. An estimated 12 armed civilians opened fire on Labor Secretary Luis Carlos Nájera, who was attorney general between 2013 and 2015. No one was killed in the exchange of gunfire but several people were wounded. Among them were two young girls selling candy outside the restaurant, Nájera, who was struck by a bullet in the hand, and three agents from the state prosecutor’s office, one of whom was reported in serious condition (mexiconewsdaily.com/news/).
In March, three film students in Jalisco were tortured and murdered by a drug cartel before their bodies were dissolved in acid. Javier Salomón Aceves Gastélum, Marcos Francisco García Ávalos, and Jesús Daniel Díaz García were kidnapped by armed men in Tonalá, near Guadalajara, on March 19. The three students — all of whom attended the Audiovisual Media University (CAAV) in Guadalajara — were working on a project in the home of one of the student’s aunts on the day they were kidnapped. CJNG members were watching the house because a rival criminal known as El Cholo, the leader of the Nueva Plaza criminal group, was expected to arrive there. Posing as security authorities, the armed men took the students to a ranch where one died from the beating he received while being interrogated. It turned out to be a case of mistaken identity (mexiconewsdaily.com/). But, the cartels are not the only violent factions threatening the stability of several Mexican states.
In response to the violence, several self-defense vigilante groups have emerged in the last few years to combat the cartel groups that have dominated the regions. These vigilantes are organized and financed largely by the local businessmen. They are comprised of a wide assortment of people from business leaders, to migrant workers, to family members of victims from cartel violence and mercenaries. Equipped with full tactical attire and armed with state of the art weaponry, these vigilantes have engaged the cartels in open pitched battle on the streets of towns and cities where the government security forces have either been overwhelmed or have actively colluded with the local cartels.
These groups have been successful in uprooting entrenched criminal organizations in many regions of the country where the government security forces have failed. However, in doing so they have created another destabilizing presence. The corruption of the security forces has led the vigilantes to be suspicious of the government and ill-inclined to relinquish control of liberated territory to official authorities. Nor have they complied with a police order to disband or disarm.
In an attempt to bring some control over the vigilantes, the Mexican military has sought to legitimize them as augmentation forces and have given them official capacity. This avenue has met with minimal success as the vigilantes remain skeptical of the police and military, choosing to maintain their independence. In regions they control, vigilante groups have been known to stop even police convoys and prisoner transports to search them for cartel leaders using police cover to escape.
The vigilante movement has elicited other negative results. In the aftermath of removing cartels from their power over their stronghold regions, the vigilantes have taken to rigorous pursuit of escaping cartel members that have often resulted in virtual witch hunts that involve severe beatings administered to suspected cartel members and rounding up people based on little more than hearsay evidence. All of which has led to negative backlashes from the general public (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mmnMgDEp_R0).
Nor, does the vigilante movement operate free from its own criminal indulgences. Since 2013, government officials have claimed on various occasions that the CJNG provided arms to the self-defense forces that purportedly emerged to combat the Knights Templar in the southwest, pacific state of Michoacán — a strategic operating point for criminal groups home to a wealth of minerals and a major seaport (insightcrime.org/). The militaries own involvement in the conflict has left it with a tarnished reputation.
There are strong indications that federal security forces were responsible for the disappearance of 23 people, including at least five minors, in Tamaulipas over the past four months. The United Nations (UN) said that people were reportedly detained by uniformed personnel as they walked or drove along public roads adding that several burnt out and bullet-ridden vehicles [have been] found by the roadside. Many of these people are reported to have been arbitrarily detained and disappeared while going about their daily lives. It is particularly horrific that at least five of the victims are minors, with three of them as young as 14. These crimes, perpetrated over four months in a single municipality, are outrageous. Allegations have also been raised regarding the enforced disappearance and extrajudicial executions carried out by public officials (mexiconewsdaily.com/). The last decade of violence has led to calls for a new means of combatting the criminal lawlessness.
The new strategy proposed by the Obrador administration known as #SeguridadSinGuerra (Security without War) promises to create a National Guard and to keep the Internal Security Law (LSI) which formally authorizes the use of the military in domestic law enforcement. A key part of the strategy would be to put an end to the vicious circle of corruption that brings about more corruption as well as impunity and insecurity. The strategy further builds on the concepts of training police and improving their socio-economic conditions which will initiate a comprehensive pacification project that will include analyzing the possibility of an amnesty for some criminals (mexiconewsdaily.com/).
It is too early in the new administration. There has not been enough time to implement any parts of the new strategy. So, its effectiveness has yet to be tested. The concern is that with all the lawlessness going on, the measures may be too late to have any serious effect. With entire regions outside of the government's control and held by well-financed cartels or vigilante groups, the government’s main problem will be reasserting control and establishing its legitimacy. The cartels don’t want to relinquish power and through their enterprises have billions of dollars to use and have found ways to circumvent the security forces and the vigilante groups. The vigilante groups don’t trust the government security forces or the legal system and retain armies. These two groups, holding their own well equipped and trained armies, present a severe challenge of power for the government. The polices in and of themselves are vaguely defined and focus on pacification strategies in dealing with the criminal organizations of the cartels.
It is too early to know if the new policies will have any real impact. While they might have marginal success at some level, it is unlikely they will have much effect on a larger scale. The cartels are not rebel organizations, they’re businesses that can only be subverted by cutting off their financial resources and revenue base. That means stronger cooperation from neighboring countries, such as the United States and Canada, who are the prime sources of this revenue. If the cartels cannot be subdued, then the vigilante groups will continue to gain in power as citizens start to see them as the only viable response to the criminality. The history of the government trying to clean up corruption in the police and military has proven to be short-lived at best. Inevitably, the criminality in Mexico is going to continue because too much money is involved, and their power too well entrenched. The fear is that the violence will become wider spread in the country diminishing control of the government and giving more to the cartels and vigilantes.