By James J. Rooney, Jr.*
Many Central and South American countries currently experience serious threats to their internal and external security. Three, in particular, Honduras, Venezuela and Colombia, are infected with two specific threats that cut across the division between domestic and foreign: 1)Transnational organized crime to include drug, weapon and human trafficking and 2) Terrorism. Each of the three countries in question have slightly different political structures which affect how their military and intelligence services are organized and operate. The actual political leanings within each state government ranges from Honduras’ rightwing and center-right Liberals, to Venezuela’s move towards socialism, to Colombia’s evolution to social liberalism. The political leanings are important because they go to the heart of policy and decision-making within the country and affect how both the military and intelligence communities deal with threats and issues. The two threats identified have the potential to create political instability within each of the three countries. How each country deals with the threats has a lot to do with the utility and effectiveness and their respective intelligence organizations.
This Central American state, “long one of the poorest countries in Latin America, is now also among the most violent and crime-ridden.” The violence emanates from organized criminal enterprises using street gangs, transnational syndicates, and even corrupt security forces. Over the last twenty years Honduras has become a strategic transit hub for the exportation of drugs, weapons, and humans to the United States and elsewhere. Since the 2009 coup that ousted President Manuel Zelaya, the situation has only gotten worse. From a law enforcement perspective, a lack of capacity, transparency, and corruption cripple the judiciary from acting in the best interests of the state. The Honduran policing system is known throughout Latin America as one of the more corrupt. Even the military has not completely evaded the label of corruption, but this is the one organization that the central government has turned to time and again as it attempts to deal with the growing problems associated with organized crime and gangs like the MS13 and Barrio 18. The recent Presidential election turmoil has only added to the problem since critical monetary aid from Western nations, especially the United States, has been coopted in lieu of a resolution. Much of the anticipated funding was targeted at fighting crime.
At first blush, of all the problems and threats that Honduras is exposed to, it would seem terrorism is not one of them. But if the internal violence perpetrated by street gangs is relabeled, then the threat of domestic terrorism begins to skyrocket. These gangs have an agenda that supports organized crime, promotes violence against specific and non-specific random targets for both political and non-political reasons. Putting too many filters on the labeling can easily reduce this problem to a policing issue and, in the process, overlook the damage being done to the political, economic, and social structures of the state. If this is not terrorism, then terrorism has been lost to political analysis.
To deal with the corruption, “in early 2016, Honduras created a police purge commission following revelations that high-ranking members of the police had participated in the 2009 murder of a Honduras’ anti-drug czar.” After careful records review, hundreds of high-ranking officials and thousands of police were removed. The Honduran intelligence agency is embedded and comes under the direct control of the military, so they are routinely called upon to provide real-time intelligence on the activities of crime families and the movements of street gangs. Since the coup of 2009, the Honduran intelligence service has been both militarized and politicized. The state has continued to militarize the battle against organized crime and terrorism granting the military policing powers, including arrest. In 2013, the state created and deployed an elite military police unit for the purpose of dealing directly with such threats and preserving the internal security of the state. These decisions have not been without controversy.
When the military essentially controls policing and the intelligence community operates essentially unchecked, there are going to be serious issues that arise concerning civil liberties and human rights. Because the military and intelligence services operate in lock step, abuses perpetrated by the military are often the result of intelligence initiatives designed to contain, isolate, or eliminate not only threats to the state but threats to their power bases. With a weakened justice system, the intelligence community supports activities that result in the arrest and detainment of political opposition and dissidents as well as primary targets within organized crime and street gangs. The implied threat to political enemies is not lost in translation. The intelligence community was seriously involved in the extrajudicial execution of organized crime leadership and heads of violent gangs after the 2009 coup. This was a way of short-circuiting the judicial process and sending a clear political message to adversaries about internal control.
“Venezuela is a key transit country for drug shipments leaving Colombia for the United States and Europe.” The country’s poor rule of law and internal corruption have acted as a magnet for foreign entities, primarily Colombians, to control a lucrative drug trade. Since 2005, there is a growing body of evidence that elements of the Venezuelan security forces, including the intelligence community, are getting in on the action. The Cartel de los Soles is a loose network of police, military, and intelligence officials cashing in their influence for a healthy cut of the drug profits.
Not unlike Honduras, the threats of organized crime and terrorism are tearing at the fabric of social order and political control in Venezuela. Additionally, many Venezuelan cities are overrun with street crime and urban gang warfare that terrorizes the general population, creates an insecure and hostile living environment, and seeks through intimidation and murder to control local political power structures. But another element of domestic terrorism exists in Venezuela: violent actions carried out by political opposition against the ruling elites and government. Over the last decade, hundreds of people have been killed, property destroyed, and internal security threatened. Venezuela has one of the highest murder rates on the planet. This form of domestic terrorism creates major policing issues that drive the federal government to take extraordinary measures, including the use of military forces to maintain order and localized control. The Venezuelan intelligence service is key to these military and paramilitary operations.
The Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (SEBIN) is the premier intelligence agency in Venezuela. “Created primarily as an internal security force, it reports directly to the Vice President of Venezuela.” The Organization of American States has described SEBIN as the politically-controlled police force of the Bolivarian government. SEBIN has long been compared to Israel’s Mossad in terms of tactics and operational effectiveness. Unlike Mossad, SEBIN can also be a force that utilizes its power for self-aggrandizement and corruption. When carrying out its primary function of providing for state security, “SEBIN has an extensive record of human rights violations that include torture against ‘enemies of the state,’ whether they be domestic or foreign.” SEBIN even acted as a base of operations for the American CIA in its own efforts against a post-revolutionary Cuba. Working closely with the CIA, SEBIN is accused of doing their dirty work including the torture and murder of political opponents. Thus, SEBIN is an effective political tool to deal with organized crime and domestic terrorism, including continuous sweeps for possible threats to the regime. To accomplish this mission, SEBIN has erected one of the most extensive surveillance programs in the world.
Former SEBIN operatives and other internal security experts have gone on record to say that the Venezuelan government has spared no expense in putting together a formidable domestic surveillance system using Russian and Italian technology. The information collected by SEBIN is used to build a huge database in which profiles of “people of interest” are created either for immediate action, continued monitoring, or “watch listing”. The tools are especially useful against organized crime that uses modern communications and computer-based technologies to foster their own illicit business operations. In short, SEBIN is the militarized, politicized arm of the federal government. The agency has been weaponized to deal directly with organized crime and terrorist-related activities within the country, unfortunately including political opposition.
“After more than half a century of civil war and the rise and fall of drug trafficking empires, Colombia has made huge strides in improving its security situation in recent years.” But, not unlike its neighbors, Honduras and Venezuela, Colombia is also beset by organized crime and forms of domestic terrorism fomented by guerrilla rebels. The Colombian underworld is a strange mixture of old crime organizations that espouse their own political ideologies along with newer criminal enterprises that have openly declared war on the federal government. The scope of criminal activity is common to the entire region and includes drugs, weapons, money laundering, human trafficking, extortion, and even illicit mining operations. Combating these threats is the job of the Colombian intelligence agency, which can be divided into a pre- and post-2011 history. The roles, missions, authority, and powers of the agency are linked to these two periods of time.Again, not unlike Honduras and Venezuela, Colombia’s intelligence service had its darker days in terms of corruption and close ties to organized crime.
“The Administrative Department of Security (Spanish: Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad, DAS) was the Security Service agency of Colombia, which was also responsible for border and immigration services. It was dissolved on 31 October 2011 as part of a wider Executive Reform andthe leadership was replaced by the Dirección Nacional de Inteligencia (DNI).” DAS was initially chartered to work internal security issues for state and local governments. It was the largest civil secret service in Colombia. With an annual budget of over $100M and more than 5,000 field agents, DAS produced strategic and operational intelligence for federal decision-makers. Additional duties included providing judiciary police investigative services, as well as acting as the nation’s premier counterintelligence service responsible for both domestic and foreign threats to national security. DAS was even responsible for the control of immigration, including handling visas. Interested in stronger relations with the United States, DAS worked with the Drug Enforcement Agency to corroborate many of its policy positions. But what now seems to be a common element for Latin intelligence agencies, elements of DAS were double-dealing and lining their own pockets in the process.
“In late 2011, President Juan Manuel Santos announced that DAS was to be replaced by a new agency,” the national intelligence agency (ANIC, in Spanish). This time around, the sole purpose of ANIC was simply to gather intelligence on domestic and foreign threats. Interface of ANIC with the military was designed to be a rare occurrence, except in extreme situations where national security was directly threatened, as determined by the federal government. The terrorism associated with guerrilla rebels apparently rises to that level. Political supporters of those FARC guerrillas are considered legitimate targets. ANIC has supported police and military operations aimed at eliminating these political opponents.
“Colombia distinguishes itself from the majority of the rest of the countries of the region because it has not suffered prolonged military governments or democracy interruptions.” Lacking this string of transition periods, the government has been able to keep a close hold on its intelligence agency and the data collected and analyzed. The government has been successful at keeping the intelligence community focused on government-required intelligence issues, lessening the chance that the agency will begin to chart its own course and drift towards graft and corruption in the process. ANIC does its work and there have been few scandals associated with the agency. In short, it “respects democracy and the rule of law” and thus stands out compared to the previous two cases.
Honduras, Venezuela and Colombia: A Comparative Intelligence Snapshot
The intelligence agencies of Honduras, Venezuela and Colombia are non-Western in design and function. Because of the historical, social, and political unrest evident in each, the intelligence services were established to provide internal security primarily in support of government preservation and continuity. Human rights and civil liberties came at a premium and were not a top priority given the threats supposedly posed by organized crime and domestic terrorism imposed by violent street gangs and political opposition entities. This aspect separates them from Western counterparts, as these three Latin ICs do not really distinguish between internal and external security threats. In many ways they see them as an integrated and holistic threat picture, since many of the internal threats have financial and material support beyond national borders, such is the nature of transnational organized crime. Of the three, the Colombian intelligence agency is more normalized in terms of its recognition and approval by Western powers, most especially the United States. Venezuela finds itself on the other side of that political-intelligence approval spectrum. Recently, the United States has lent more credence and support to government opposition in Venezuela than to the recognized elected government. Senator Robert Menendez, Chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in hearings designed to impose sanctions against Venezuela, tended to “minimize the seriousness of the widespread violence carried out by the opposition.” He went on to blame the Maduro government for the continued unrest.
The current policies of all three states and their intelligence agencies are similar in execution, though Honduras and Venezuela seem more brutal and less concerned with collateral damage. Consequently, they have not been as successful because the intelligence agencies have acted in a bipolar way, often collaborating with criminal elements and terrorists while also gathering intelligence for their ultimate demise. Western liberal democracies have stronger, more executable laws that prevent such intrusive and systemic levels of corruption and are thus able to more successfully deal with organizational threats.
Given their common Latin heritage and geopolitical concerns, all three countries should be acting in concert and sharing intelligence. With state-of-the-art technologies and closer ties with the West, the ability to share intelligence and create a regional security zone is certainly within the realm of possibility. Recent reforms in Colombia have gone a long way to clean up governmental agency corruption, especially within its intelligence organization, making its IC less prone to militarization and politicization. Honduras and Venezuela comparatively have a long way to go but they could learn a lot from their near peer. Only time will tell how seriously they consider the opportunity.
About the author:
*James J. Rooney, Jr. is the Boeing Senior Manager of the Guidance, Navigation and Control Subsystem of the International Space Station in Houston, Texas. Prior to joining Boeing in 1997, he spent twenty-eight years in the United States Air Force as a Command Pilot and Program Director for Air Force Space Systems. He is now a doctoral candidate Strategic Intelligence in the School of Security and Global Studies at the American Military University.
This article was published by Modern Diplomacy