From Peru to Uruguay, to Ecuador and Guyana, the US is seeking to rebuild its strategic influence in Latin America, one gun at a time.
Last week, the head of U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), Army Gen. Laura Richardson, visited Peru, a country that is in the grip of arguably its worst political crisis of this still-fledgling century. The country has witnessed wave after wave of anti-government protests followed by brutal, sometimes deadly, crackdowns by security forces since the US-greenlit removal of the democratically elected President Pedro Castillo in December. It also recently played host to a joint military exercise involving an unprecedented number of US troops.
With a record low approval rating of just 10% and a record high disapproval rating of 82%, Castillo’s replacement as president, his former deputy, Dina Boluarte, is weak. She is still under investigation for the deaths of dozens of pro-Castillo protesters in the early months of her government and refuses to hold elections until 2026 despite previous pledges to bring the vote forward. In the face of rising public discontent, her government recently proposed changes to the penal code that could, in their current form, allow for the prosecution of any citizen who calls for a protest march and any journalist who reports on it.
Washington, of course, is looking the other way.
During her stay in Lima, Gen Richardson met with Peru’s Secretary of Defence Jorge Chavez, senior armed forces leaders and the commanders of the Peruvian air force, navy and army, to discuss the “longstanding U.S.-Peru defence partnership.” Meanwhile, Boluarte was in New York spinning a web of lies and half truths, including a rapidly debunked claim that she had held an official meeting with Joe Biden on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly when in reality all they had shared was a photo op.
But relations between the US and Peru are stronger than ever. By the end of last week, the US Embassy in Peru had published a press release announcing a new agreement between US Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and the government of Peru to collaborate in transnational criminal investigations through the establishment of a Transnational Criminal Investigation Unit (TCIU). According to the press release, HSI’s TCIUs help further HSI’s global mission by bringing in foreign partners to help investigate and prosecute individuals involved in transnational criminal activities.
A New Escalation in Washington’s War on Drugs?
The move comes as Republican lawmakers and right-wing pundits are busily psychologically prepping the US public for a fresh escalation in the war on drugs. Droves of high-profile figures, including arch neocon and regime change-specialist Lindsay Graham, presidential candidates Donald Trump and Ron de Santis, and media pundit Tucker Carlson, have been calling for direct, overt US military intervention against Mexico’s drug cartels in order to stem the flow of fentanyl.
In an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal in March, former Attorney General (under both George HW Bush and Donald Trump) William Barr likened Mexico’s “narco-terrorists” to Isis and called for “a far more aggressive American effort inside Mexico than ever before.” Barr also called AMLO the cartel’s “chief enabler” for refusing to wage war against the cartels with quite the same zeal as his predecessors.
Barr is hardly one to talk given his central role in burying evidence of then-President George HW Bush’s involvement in the “Iraqgate” and “Iron-Contra” scandals, the latter of which involved the trafficking of huge volumes of cocaine to the US by the Contras, as the hand-written notebooks of Oliver North, the National Security Council aide who helped run the contra war, amply show. Years later, courageous journalists like Gary Webb and Robert Parry would show that the CIA was also heavily involved in bringing crack cocaine into the US.
Back to today, it goes without saying that the real driving motivation behind the latest calls to expand the war on drugs is not to stem the flow of drugs into the US, or to tackle the escalating violence of drug cartels across Latin America — if Washington was serious about that, all it would have to do is pass legislation to stem the southward flow of US-produced guns and other weapons. But that would hurt the profits of arms manufacturers. And if it was serious about tackling drug addiction, it would never have let Big Pharma unleash the opium epidemic in the first place. And once it had, it would never have let the perps walk free with the daintiest of financial slaps on the wrists.
No, this is primarily about what the US war on drugs has always been about: pursuing geopolitical and geostrategic dominance in key regions of the world while controlling and imprisoning for serious sums of money the restive populace at home. This is a point that is explained elegantly by Jorge Retana Yarto, a former director of the Intelligence School for National Security of Mexico’s Centre for National Intelligence (CNI), in an article for the news website Contralinea:
The ideology of the “war” on drugs and organized crime in the United States is an immense fabrication. That does not mean that the problems linked to the multinational trafficking of prohibited drugs and the criminal organizations that have specialized in it, and everything that this entails, do not exist. They exist and are very acute, but both phenomena were ideologized for the purposes of geopolitical and geostrategic dominance, and were imposed through exportable reactive and punitive public policies in matters of intelligence and security, causing social, political-institutional, cultural and economic devastation. By assuming a military dimension, (the War on Drugs) laid the foundations for armed intervention in the Latin American region and converted the territories, as well as national sovereignties, into areas of geostrategic action.
Right now, Peru is undoubtedly a key area of geostrategic action. Just four months ago, as readers may recall, the Boluarte government authorised the entry of more than 1,000 armed US military personnel, 11 US military aircraft, two boats, two trucks, rockets, grenades, detonators, satellite communication equipment, machine guns, pistols and ammunition onto Peruvian soil, ostensibly to take part in Resolute Sentinel 2023, a military exercise that was held across a number of regions of Peru between June and August.
I wouldn’t be surprised if the visiting US troops also provided Peru’s security forces with special sessions on crowd control and crisis management. But there is also a clear geopolitical agenda at work. According to an in-depth article in the Peruvian weekly newspaper Hildebrandt en sus trece (which we covered here), the main purpose of the US troops’ mobilisation was as a show of force to Washington’s main strategic rivals, Russia and China, which are “eroding” US influence in the region.
“There is a global political confrontation between the United States and China and Russia,” Wilson Barrantes, former director of Peru’s National Intelligence Directorate (DINI), told the weekly magazine. “Peru is key because we are located at a strategic point in the Pacific basin, serving as a gateway for China as well as an access point to Brazil’s huge market on the Atlantic seaboard.”
Expanding US Influence, One Gun at a Time
On the same day that Peru’s government signed an agreement with the US Homeland Security Department to combat transnational crime together, the Argentine media outlet Infobae reported that the United States Security Force Assistance Brigade (SFAB) — a specialized US Army unit formed in 2017 to conduct security force assistance (SFA) missions with allied and partner nations — is looking to launch operations in Uruguay in the near future.
“The US Army’s Southern Command is working to establish the first exchange opportunity with Uruguay in 2024, in order to continue strengthening the partnership between our armies and advance shared national security objectives,” said Kerri Spindler-Ranta, the Press, Education and Culture Counselor of the US Embassy in Uruguay.
Founded in 2017, the SFAB initially operated in Afghanistan and Iraq as part of the US War on Terror in the Middle East. But predictably enough, their role was rapidly expanded to many other regions, including Africa, Asia and Europe, where SFAB units have been advising and training Ukrainian soldiers in Germany and other NATO member countries. The SFAB landed for the first time in Latin America in 2020 as a deployment to Ivan Duque’s Colombia.
But the soldiers were not exactly welcomed by the local population, many of whom feared that the US was seeking to sabotage Colombia’s peace process. Senator Iván Cepeda described the arrival of the SFAB as an “invasive and hostile presence on our territory” and a violation of Colombia’s constitution. Colombia’s Supreme Court initially suspended any authorization for the military contingent to carry out activities in Colombian territory, but Colombia’s Foreign Ministry successfully challenged the ruling.
In short order, SOUTHCOM launched additional SFABs in Honduras and Panama. But the stationed US soldiers did not always mentor the local forces in ways Army brass would have wanted, reports Army Times:
The 800-soldier unit racked up at least 60 misconduct offenses, including incidents with alcohol, drugs and adultery; a battalion commander was fired; members of one advising team are facing punishment for their behavior in Colombia; and another team’s actions in Honduras are under investigation, according to internal records and interviews conducted by Army Times.
Advisors deployed to Central and South America were told in late 2021 to behave amid a rise in sexually transmitted diseases among married and single troops, and a Colombian officer had to ask that advisors not use drugs at their hotel.
Which is kind of ironic, all things considered. According to a recently published US Army document cited by Infobae, SOUTHCOM is now looking to open new SFABs in Uruguay, Peru and Ecuador. The document argues that the expanded presence of SFAB units in Latin America will help counteract the influence of other nations in the region. It is not hard to guess which nations it is talking about.
Back to Business As Usual
For the best part of the first two decades of this century, the US government showed relatively little interest in what it used to call its own “backyard” (Biden now calls it the US’s “front yard”). Put simply, it had more important priorities, most notably the Global War on Terror. While Washington shifted its focus and resources away from its immediate neighborhood to the Middle East, where it squandered trillions spreading mayhem and death and breeding a whole new generation of terrorists, China began massively expanding its influence and economic footprint in Latin America.
Two decades later, the Asian giant is already South America´s largest trading partner. As Reuters reported in June 2022, if you take Mexico out of the equation, China has already overtaken the US as Latin America’s largest trading partner. Excluding Mexico, total trade flows — i.e., imports and exports — between China and Latin America reached $247 billion last year, far in excess of the US’ $173 billion.
Unlike the US, China generally does not try to dictate how its trading partners should behave and what sorts of rules, norms, principles and ideology they should adhere to. What China does — or at least has by and large done over the past few decades until now — is to trade with and invest in countries that have goods — particularly commodities — it covets. Until now, it has worked a treat.
The US is now keen to turn back the clock — not through mutually beneficial trade but rather one-sided security partnerships. In May 2019, Admiral Craig Faller, then head of SOUTHCOM, presented an internal document called “Enduring Promise for the Americas.” It outlined a plan for winning back allies in Latin America and the Caribbean up to 2027 with the goal of “improving security, protecting the US homeland and our national interests.” Just call it business as usual.
At the beginning of this year, Admiral Fuller’s successor at the helm of SOUTHCOM, Army Gen. Laura Richardson, gave a speech at the Atlantic Council in which she unveiled a tweaked version of the Monroe Doctrine. The original doctrine held that any intervention in the political affairs of the Americas by European foreign powers was a potentially hostile act against the United States. Now, the US is applying the same doctrine to China and Russia, whom US SOUTHCOM intends to “box out” from the region’s strategic resources.
A Possible Flashpoint
One potential flashpoint could be the small former British colony Guyana, formerly known as British Guyana. Sandwiched between Venezuela to the west, the Atlantic Ocean to the north, Suriname to the east and Brazil to the south and southwest, Guyana is the third-smallest sovereign state by area in mainland South America after Uruguay. It is also one of the least densely populated countries on the planet. Yet it is now being treated to state visits by top US officials like Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and USAID Administrator Samantha Power.
That’s right: it has huge, unexploited oil deposits just off its coastline.
Discovered by a consortium led by Exxon Mobil in 2015, whose partners include China’s CNOOC, the deposits have transformed Guyana into one of the world’s biggest offshore oil producers. The country has already seen its economy soar thanks to the discovery, which has so far led to the production of nearly 400,000 barrels of oil a day by the Exxon-led consortium. According to U.S. Geological Survey estimates, Guyana’s coastal area has roughly 13.6 billion barrels of oil reserves and 32 trillion cubic feet of gas reserves just waiting to be drilled.
For a country with a population of just 805,000 and a GDP of slightly less than $10 billion, it is a huge bonanza. But there’s just one problem: a vast chunk of its territory, called El Esequibo, has also been claimed by Venezuela for the past 200 years, ever since Venezuela gained independence from Spain. That is where most of the oil lies and the Maduro government says it belongs to Venezuela, which already boasts the world’s largest oil reserves (an estimated 304 billion barrels). And on this matter, it has the overwhelming support of the opposition parties.
Tensions between the two countries recently came to a boil after Guyana’s government announced it was opening bids for 14 additional offshore blocks, even as the International Court of Justice weighs up each country’s claims to the territory. The bidders included Exxon and its partners, a consortium led by French-owned Total Energies as well companies and groups based in the US, Ghana, Saudi Arabia, Guyana and London.
Venezuela was livid, arguing that the offshore blocks awarded are in disputed areas. The country’s National Assembly accused Guyana of “behaving like a franchise of the North American oil transnational Exxon Mobil, whose interests are, essentially, the appropriation of the existing oil in this territory, which is still pending resolution of the controversy, putting peace in the region at risk.”
The war of words is escalating. In his speech to the UN General Assembly in New York this past weekend, Venezuela’s Foreign Minister Yvan Gil said (emphasis my own):
“Two days ago, Venezuela’s National Assembly unanimously decided to call our people to vote in a consultative referendum to ratify the defense of our sovereign territory against the aggressions of the American empire, which wants to lead us to a war for natural resources.”
Washington, as one might expect, is stirring the pot. After the Maduro government announced plans to hold the referendum, Assistant Secretary of State Brian Nichols tweeted:
The U.S. supports Guyana’s sovereign right to develop its own natural resources. Efforts to infringe upon Guyana’s sovereignty are unacceptable. We call on Venezuela to respect international law, including the 1899 arbitral award & the ongoing ICJ process btwn Guyana & Vzla. -BAN
— Brian A. Nichols (@WHAAsstSecty) September 20, 2023
The US is Guyana’s largest trading partner as well as main security partner. As Guyana President Irfaan Ali said at a joint press conference with Anthony Blinken, “the United States has played a tremendous role in the training of our security forces… We are committed to continuing this partnership, expanding this partnership, building stronger relationship (sic) and trust, creating greater network (sic).”
But China has also significantly expanded its trade and investment with Guyana, making it Beijing’s largest trading partner in the Caribbean region — a fact that has not gone unnoticed in Washington.
A few weeks ago, the US Ambassador to Guyana, Sarah-Ann Lynch, a 25-year USAID veteran, raised the Biden Administration’s concerns about the rising influence of Chinese businesses in Guyana as well as the Caribbean region as a whole. “Clearly, China’s footprint is growing in Guyana, as well as the rest of the Caribbean,” Lynch said at a press conference before urging companies in the South American country to take advantage of the superior business opportunities available with American companies.
In the meantime, the territorial dispute over Guyana is once again straining relations between the governments of Venezuela and the United States, with Caracas accusing Washington of “insolent meddling” in the dispute, just at a time when specialists and politicians were beginning to glimpse possibilities of progress in the negotiations facilitated by the Kingdom of Norway.