Since the September 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, U.S. attention to terrorism in Latin America has intensified, with an increase in bilateral and regional cooperation.
In its April 2009 Country Reports on Terrorism, the State Department maintained that terrorism in the region was primarily perpetrated by terrorist organizations in Colombia and by the remnants of radical leftist Andean groups. Overall, however, the report maintained that the threat of a transnational terrorist attack remained low for most countries in the hemisphere. Cuba has remained on the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism since 1982 pursuant to Section 6(j) of the Export Administration Act, which triggers a number of economic sanctions.
Both Cuba and Venezuela are on the State Department’s annual list of countries determined to be not cooperating fully with U.S. antiterrorism efforts pursuant to Section 40A of the Arms Export Control Act. U.S. officials have expressed concerns over the past several years about Venezuela’s lack of cooperation on antiterrorism efforts, its relations with Iran, and President Hugo Chávez’s sympathetic statements for Colombian terrorist groups. The State Department terrorism report noted, however, that President Chávez publicly changed course in June 2008 and called on the FARC to unconditionally release all hostages, declaring that armed struggle is “out of place” in modern Latin America.
In recent years, U.S. concerns have increased over activities of the radical Lebanon-based Islamic group Hezbollah and the Sunni Muslim Palestinian group Hamas in the tri-border area of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay. The State Department terrorism report maintains that the United States remains concerned that Hezbollah and Hamas sympathizers are raising funds among the sizable Middle Eastern communities in the region, but stated that there was no corroborated information that these or other Islamic extremist groups had an operational presence in the area.
Allegations have linked Hezbollah to two bombings in Argentina: the 1992 bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires that killed 30 people and the 1994 bombing of the Argentine-Israeli Mutual Association (AMIA) in Buenos Aires that killed 85 people. Concerns about Iran’s increasing activities in Latin America center on the country’s ties to Hezbollah and the terrorist attacks in Argentina.
In the 111th Congress, the House approved H.R. 2410 (Berman), the Foreign Relations Authorization Act for FY2010 and FY2011, on June 10, 2009, with a provision calling for a report on Iran’s and Hezbollah’s actions in the Western Hemisphere. On July 17, 2009, the House approved H.Con.Res. 156 (Ros-Lehtinen), which, among other provisions, condemns the 1994 AMIA bombing in Buenos Aires, and urges Western Hemisphere governments to take actions to curb the activities that support Hezbollah and other such extremist groups. On July 23, 2009, the Senate approved its version of the FY2010 defense authorization bill, S. 1390 (Levin), which included reporting requirements on Venezuela and Cuba, but the provisions were not included in the final enacted measure.
Other introduced measures include H.R. 375 (Ros-Lehtinen) and H.R. 2475 (Ros-Lehtinen), which, among their provisions, would place restrictions on nuclear cooperation with countries assisting the nuclear programs of Venezuela or Cuba; H.R. 2272 (Rush), which includes a provision that would remove Cuba from the state sponsors of terrorism list; and H.Res. 872 (Mack), which calls for Venezuela to be designated a state sponsor of terrorism.
Over the years, the United States has been concerned about threats to Latin American and Caribbean nations from various terrorist or insurgent groups that have attempted to influence or overthrow elected governments. Although Latin America has not been the focal point in the war on terrorism, countries in the region have struggled with domestic terrorism for decades and international terrorist groups have at times used the region as a battleground to advance their causes.
The State Department’s annual Country Reports on Terrorism highlights U.S. concerns about terrorist threats around the world, including in Latin America. The April 2009 report maintained that terrorism in the region was primarily perpetrated by terrorist organizations in Colombia and by the remnants of radical leftist Andean groups. Overall, however, the report maintained that the threat of a transnational terrorist attack remained low for most countries in the hemisphere.
The report also stated that regional governments “took modest steps to improve their counterterrorism capabilities and tighten border security” but that progress was limited by “corruption, weak government institutions, ineffective or lack of interagency cooperation, weak or non-existent legislation, and reluctance to allocate sufficient resources.” The report lauded counterterrorism efforts in Argentina, Colombia, Panama, Paraguay, Mexico, and El Salvador, but noted that some other countries “lacked urgency and resolve to address counterterrorism deficiencies.” It also noted that most hemispheric nations had solid cooperation with the United States on terrorism issues, especially at the operational level, with excellent intelligence, law enforcement, and legal assistance relations.
Colombia has three terrorist groups that have been designated by the Secretary of State as Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs): the leftist National Liberation Army (ELN), and remaining elements of the rightist paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) and the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The ELN has a dwindling membership of about 2,000 fighters and reduced offensive capability, but has inflicted casualties through the increased use of land mines and continues to fund its operations through drug trafficking.
Peace talks between the ELN and the Colombian government remain stalled. With more than 32,000 members demobilized, the AUC remained inactive as a formal organization, but some AUC renegades continued to engage in criminal activities, mostly drug trafficking, according to the terrorism report. According to the report, the Colombian government continued to process and investigate demobilized paramilitaries under the Justice and Peace Law, which offers judicial benefits and reduced prison sentences for participants who confess fully to their crimes and return all illicit profits.
The FARC has been weakened significantly by the government’s military campaign against it, including the killings of several FARC commanders in 2007 and the group’s second in command, Raúl Reyes, during a Colombian government raid on a FARC camp in Ecuador on March 1, 2008. In May 2008, the FARC admitted that its long-time leader, Manuel Marulanda, had died of a heart attack in March. In July 2008, a Colombian military operation rescued 15 long-held hostages, including three U.S. defense contractors held since February 2003: Thomas Howes, Keith Stansell, and Marc Gonsalves; Colombian Senator and presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt; and other Colombians. In addition, according to the State Department’s terrorism report, Colombian security forces captured or killed a number of mid-level FARC leaders in 2008 and reduced the amount of territory where the FARC could freely operate. Desertions among FARC members also increased in 2008 to more than 3,000 compared to almost 2,500 in 2007.
Nevertheless, the FARC has continued tactical-level terrorist activities, kidnapping for profit (including the holding of 24 “high value” political hostages and hundreds of other kidnap victims), and narcotrafficking activities. The group launched several bombings against civilian and military targets in urban areas and targeted rural outposts, infrastructure, and political opponents in dozens of attacks.
Colombian terrorist groups continue to utilize the territory of several of Colombia’s neighbors, according to the State Department terrorism report. The FARC uses Ecuadorian territory for rest, recuperation, resupply, and training in addition to coca processing and limited planting and production. While Ecuador’s relations with Colombia remain tense in the aftermath of Colombia’s March 2008 military raid on a FARC camp in Ecuadorian territory, Ecuador’s military has increased the number of operations against the FARC in its northern border region.
Both the FARC and the ELN and remnants of the AUC often crossed into Venezuelan territory to rest and regroup as well as to extort protection money and kidnap Venezuelans in order to finance their operations. According to the terrorism report, the Venezuelan government did not systematically police the country’s 1,400-mile border with Colombia to prevent the movement of armed groups or to interdict the flow of narcotics. Moreover, limited amounts of weapons and ammunition, some from official Venezuelan stocks and facilities, reportedly have ended up in the hands of Colombian terrorist groups.
In September 2008, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control designated two senior Venezuelan government officials for materially assisting the narcotics trafficking activities of he FARC. In Panama, the terrorism report maintained that the FARC was active in Panama’s Darien province and was reported to have entered several villages in order to steal supplies. Panama’s Public Forces were reported to closely monitor the FARC’s activities and have captured several FARC members. With regard to Peru, the FARC was reported to use remote areas along the Colombian-Peruvian border to rest, regroup, and make arms purchases.
The brutal Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso or SL) insurgency, which the Department of State has designated as an FTO, was significantly weakened in the 1990s with the capture of its leader Abimael Guzman, who, after a new trial in 2006, was sentenced to life in prison.
According to the current State Department terrorism report, there are two SL remnants in Peru operating in the Upper Huallaga River Valley and in the Apurimac and Ene River Valley, which combined were reported to have several hundred armed combatants. Both groups engage in drug trafficking and carried out 64 terrorist acts in 2008, with 31 people killed, including four civilians.
As noted above, the FARC was reported was reported to use remote areas along the Colombian-Peruvian border to rest, regroup, and make arms purchases. According to the State Department terrorism report, experts contend that the FARC continued to fund coca cultivation and cocaine production among the Peruvian population in border areas.
Since 1982, the Department of State, pursuant to Section 6(j) of the Export Administration Act (EAA) of 1979, has included Cuba among its list of states sponsoring terrorism (the other states currently on the list are Iran, Sudan, and Syria). Communist Cuba had a history of supporting revolutionary movements and governments in Latin America and Africa, but in 1992, then Cuban leader Fidel Castro said that his country’s support for insurgents abroad was a thing of the past. Most analysts accept that Cuba’s policy generally did change, largely because the breakup of the Soviet Union resulted in the loss of billions in subsidies.
The language in the State Department’s terrorism report issue in April 2009 is much more tempered than in past versions of the annual report. The report begins by noting that “Cuba no longer actively supports armed struggle in Latin America and other parts of the world.”
While the report maintains that the Cuban government continued to provide safe haven to several terrorists, such as members of the Basque Homeland and Freedom (ETA ) and Colombia’s Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN), it notes that some were in Cuba in connection with peace negotiations with the governments of Spain and Colombia. The report states that Cuba continued to publicly defend the FARC, but also notes that in July 2008 Fidel Castro called on the FARC to release the hostages they were holding without preconditions, and condemned the FARC’s mistreatment of captives and of their abduction of civilian politicians who had no role in the armed conflict.
The terrorism report also notes that Cuba continued to permit U.S. fugitives from justice to live legally in Cuba, including members of such militant groups as the Boricua Popular or Macheteros, and the Black Liberation Army, but the report also asserts that the Cuban government has not provided safe haven to any new U.S. fugitives wanted for terrorism since 2006. Most of the fugitives living in Cuba entered the country in the 1970s, and are accused of hijacking or committing violent actions in the United States.
Cuba’s retention on the terrorism list has been questioned by some observers. In general, those who support keeping Cuba on the list point to the government’s history of supporting terrorist acts and armed insurgencies in Latin America and Africa. They point to the government’s continued hosting of members of foreign terrorist organizations and U.S. fugitives from justice.
Critics of retaining Cuba on the terrorism list maintain that it is a holdover of the Cold War. They argue that domestic political considerations keep Cuba on the terrorism list while North Korea and Libya have been removed, and maintain that Cuba’s presence on the list diverts U.S. attention from struggles against serious terrorist threats.
Cuba has called for the United States to surrender Luis Posada Carriles and three Cuban Americans that it accused of plotting to kill Castro and bombing a Cuban airliner in 1976. Most recently, Posada was indicted by a federal grand jury in Texas in April 2009 in which he was accused, among other things, of lying during immigration proceedings regarding his involvement in bombings in Havana in 1997. Originally a federal trial was set to begin in August 2009, but was rescheduled until February 2010 in order to give him time to prepare his defense. Press reports maintain that Posada is also being investigated by a grand jury in New Jersey for his role in the 1997 bombings in Cuba.1
In the 111th Congress, H.R. 2272 (Rush), introduced May 6, 2009, has a provision that would remove Cuba from the state sponsors of terrorism list.
Since May 2006, the Secretary of State has made an annual determination that Venezuela was not “cooperating fully with United States antiterrorism efforts” pursuant to Section 40A of the Arms Export Control Act (AECA). As a result, the United States imposed an arms embargo on Venezuela, which ended all U.S. commercial arms sales and re-transfers to Venezuela. (Other countries currently on the Section 40A list include Cuba, Eritrea , Iran, North Korea, and Syria, not to be confused with the “state sponsors of terrorism” list under Section 6(j) of the Export Administration Act of 1979.)
The State Department’s annual terrorism report maintained that while Venezuela President Hugo Chávez’s ideological sympathy for the FARC and the ELN had limited Venezuelan cooperation with Colombia in combating terrorism, President Chávez publicly changed course in June 2008 and called on the FARC to unconditionally release all hostages, declaring that armed struggle is “out of place” in modern Latin America. In July 2008, the Venezuelan military detained a senior FARC official and handed him over to Colombian authorities. Nevertheless, in September 2008, the Treasury Department designated two senior Venezuelan government officials for assisting the FARC’s drug trafficking activities.
As noted above, the State Department terrorism report stated that the FARC, ELN and remnants of the AUC often crossed into Venezuelan territory to rest and regroup as well as to extort protection money and kidnap Venezuelans in order to finance their operations. The Venezuelan government also did not systematically police its country’s border with Colombia to prevent the movement of armed groups or to interdict the flow of narcotics. Some limited amounts of weapons and ammunition from official Venezuelan stocks and facilities were reported to have ended up in the hands of Colombian terrorist groups.
The State Department terrorism report also cited two other concerns about Venezuela. First, as noted in the past, Venezuelan citizenship, identity, and travel documents remained easy to obtain, making the country a potentially attractive way-station for terrorists. Second, the report noted that passengers on weekly flights connecting Tehran and Damascus with Caracas were only subject to cursory immigration and customs controls in Caracas.
There has been increasing concern in recent years about Iran’s increasing interest in Latin America, particularly its relations with Venezuela under President Hugo Chávez. One reason for the concern is Iran’s ties to the radical Lebanon-based Islamic group Hezbollah (Party of God), which is reported to have been linked to the 1994 bombing of a Jewish cultural center in Buenos Aires. In June 2008, the Treasury Department announced that it was freezing the U.S. assets of two Venezuelans for providing financial and other support to Hezbollah. In the 110th Congress, the House approved H.Res. 435 (Klein) in November 2007, which expressed concern about Iran’s efforts to expand its influence in Latin America, and noted Venezuela’s increasing cooperation with Iran.
In the 111th Congress, the House approved H.R. 2410, the Foreign Relations Authorization Act for FY2010 and FY2011, on June 10, 2009, with a provision in section 1011 requiring a report within 90 days on Iran’s and Hezbollah’s actions in the Western Hemisphere. The provision cited the State Department’s 2008 terrorism report that noted the passengers on the weekly flights connecting Tehran and Damascus with Caracas were reportedly subject to only cursory immigration and customs controls in Caracas. On July 23, 2009, the Senate approved its version of the National Defense Authorization Act for FY2010, S. 1390 (Levin), with a provision that would have required the Director of National Intelligence to provide a report on Venezuela’s military purchases, its potential support for the FARC and Hezbollah, and other Venezuelan activities, but the final enacted measure dropped the provision.
Several other resolutions and bills related to Venezuela have been introduced in the 111th Congress. H.R. 375 (Ros-Lehtinen), introduced January 9, 2009, would, among its provisions, place restrictions on nuclear cooperation with countries assisting the nuclear programs of Venezuela. H.R. 2475 (Ros-Lehtinen), introduced May 19, 2009, includes a provision identical to that in H.R. 375 described above that would place restrictions on nuclear cooperation with countries assisting the nuclear programs of Venezuela. H.Res. 872 (Mack), introduced October 27, 2009, would call on Venezuela to be designated a state sponsor of terrorism because of its alleged support of Iran, Hezbollah, and the FARC.
This article is an edited portion of a longer January 25, 2010 CRS report, Latin America: Terrorism Issues (PDF) prepared by Mark P. Sullivan, Specialist in Latin American Affairs for the Congressional Research Service (CRS).
1 Alfonso Chardy and Jay Weaver, “Posada a Target of New Federal Probes,” Miami Herald, November 12, 2006, and “Grand Jury Indicts Cuban Exile Militant Luis Posada Carriles,” Miami Herald, January 12, 2007; Jay Weaver, “U.S.Probes Haunt 80-year Old Anti-Castro Cuban,” Houston Chronicle, March 2, 2008; Jay Weaver, “Posada Gets More Time for Perjury Defense,” Miami Herald, June 16, 2009.