Present Security Scenario in Latin America

During most of the 20th Century, Latin America was a region that lagged behind in the international system. Although this period was full with transcendental transformations and important revolutions, the region was seen by the rest of the world as an arena of Cold War competition to contain communism in the Western hemisphere.

Within Latin America’s borders, the diversity of problems and the processes of consolidation of modern states merged into a volatile reality where violence was constant and threats were continuous. Social, economic, political, cultural and racial conflicts filled the continent and in almost every case state repression was used to contain the masses and their calls for social change.

For that reason, during most of the second half of this century, military dictatorships were present in almost every country, including: Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, Paraguay, Bolivia, Peru, Brazil, Colombia, Panama, Honduras, Guatemala, Haiti and The Dominican Republic. These strong regimes were supported by the United States in an effort to contain Communist influence, especially after the success of revolutions in Cuba and Nicaragua.

In this context, where the governments were dictatorial and the people could not enter the political system, the perfect scenario was created for the establishment of clandestine organizations and structures that later, after the end of the Cold War, served as a basis for illegal and criminal businesses such as narcotrafficing, kidnapping, human trafficking and other pressing security challenges during this time. Some of the countries, scared of the authority reached in the past by the military establishment, tried to decrease their power, making the fight against these new threats even more difficult.

Latin American reality after the Cold War: The rise of criminality

As the Berlin Wall collapsed and a new world order was being implemented, the scenario in Latin America began to change. The majority of dictatorships across the region fell as societies rebuilt their lost democracies and struggled to overcome their history of repression. Since the economic situation in the region was adverse for the new governments, and the economic crisis of the 1980s produced social upheaval, a transformation of the state-centric approach into a neoliberal approach created a lack of control over the population.

The new governments had almost no space to create social programs or generate distribution policies, making meaningful economic development impossible. This lack of economic development constituted the material basis for a structural transformation where violence and criminality flourished. The massive rural exodus and urbanization, in conjunction with poverty and marginalization of large segments of the population, created a fertile ground for criminal activity. Moreover, the wide diffusion of small arms exacerbated this crisis, especially in countries home to armed clashes between government forces and insurgent groups (Kurtenback, 2001).

As the new governments tried to transform their political organization, state weakness became prevalent throughout Latin America. As reforms tried to reduce the size of the state and limit its influence on national economies by means of privatization, problems of governance and lack of state capacity to conduct coherent policies became widespread (Kurtenback, 2001). For these reasons, the situation in Latin America during the 1990s was full of tension, problems and conflicts that states were unable to control.

As criminal activity became increasingly widespread, states with internal conflicts lost their capacity to rapidly develop, causing increased regional threats and tension. These countries were mainly Peru, Mexico and Colombia, where leftist guerrilla organizations maintained and coordinated the systematic use of violence against the state and the population. During this time it became evident that these organizations would not be able to reach power; however they maintained a useless confrontation that worsened the situation in each country.

Nevertheless, the knowledge, structures and capacities of the guerrilla organizations were useful for new types of threats. The experience gained by these groups, particularly their ability to execute coordinated terrorist attacks, kidnappings, bombings and the use of mass media to promote their demands, became key tools for emerging criminal enterprises and extremist opposition forces (Pardo, 1999). As the ideological rationale for criminal and guerilla activity became less valid after the Cold War, these groups tended to decrease their actions everywhere except in Colombia, where the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) continued their terrorist attacks while simultaneously engaging in the narcotrafficing business.

This context of regional instability contributed to the creation and expansion of narcotrafficing cartels and local mafias which used violence to achieve their goals (Pardo, 1999). These criminal organizations started due to the lack of control from the state and the deficiency of opportunities for personal development within the population. For that reason, these groups were the best alternatives for social mobility and obtaining massive resources without any significant opposition.

At the end of the 1990s, narcotrafficing had become one of the biggest businesses in the region. The Andean countries were focused on cultivation and production while Central America, Venezuela and Brazil were working on the distribution of the product. The demand in North America, Europe and Asia was growing and Latin American narcotrafficers worked round the clock to satisfy it. Narcotrafficers expanded their operations and began engaging in more violence and bribery in an attempt to infiltrate the state and influence civil society in order to guarantee their maintenance of the industry.

Because of the growing magnitude of this international problem, the developed countries increased the search for solutions, creating the policy of shared responsibility. This policy was based on two documents. First was the National Security Decision Directive, issued by President Reagan in 1986, declaring that drug trafficking was a threat to US National Security (Bagley, 1991). Second was the United Nations Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances from 1988, known as the Vienna Convention. In this document, the signatory states agreed to criminalize all aspects of trafficking, cultivation, manufacturing, distribution, sale, possession and money laundering related to narcotics and psychotropic substances (Molano Cruz, 2007).

The shared responsibility policy blurs the distinction between states that produce, consume and facilitate the transit of narcotics (Gamarra, 2004). Under this new framework, the fight against drug trafficking became international. At the beginning of the new century, the international community was committed to the fight against illicit drugs, and the different governments and organisms involved in this war were actively helping the producer countries.

Latin American after 9/11: Trends and tendencies

After 9/11, priorities changed and the new international threat was terrorism. With this change of paradigm, the situation in Latin America entered a state that could be described as constant, where there is a very low level of interstate conflict, significant stability in international relations and a low risk of involvement in global tensions (Rojas Aravena, 2003). These general principles are shared for the majority of Latin American countries, however there are also special situations and realities that should be analyzed to understand the present security scenario in Latin America.

Because of the great diversity of trends and challenges in the region, comprehension of the following three factors is necessary to understand the structure and organization of Latin America. These are: internal crime, narcotrafficing and tensions between left and right ideologies.

Internal crime and violence: Effects of the socioeconomic context over the population

One of the most important problems in Latin America is the internal crime and violence that affects citizens daily. This is a constant threat in the majority of the cities in the region and because of the magnitude and extension of this phenomenon it has become a continuous threat to the stability and maintenance of Latin American democracies.

According to the UNODC, the homicide rate in 2010 was 468 000; 31% of these occurred in the Americas.[1] According to the same study, “the higher levels of homicide are associated with low human and economic development. The largest share of homicides occur in countries with low levels of human development, and countries with high levels of income inequality are afflicted by homicide rates almost four times higher than more equal societies” (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 2011), which explains the extent of this scourge in the region.

The socioeconomic reality in Latin America is the perfect scenario for the growth of crime and violence. Factors like accelerated urbanization, increasing urban inequality, unemployment, local drug markets, near criminal impunity and the growing number of firearms available within the society (Briceño-León, 2007), among other factors, create a reality where the violence is a valid mechanism for social interaction and a useful way to obtain resources, status and power.

The Latin American society is marked by increased violence, crime, and feelings of insecurity. These factors, combined with the inefficiency of the different governments to control these threats, are a dangerous scenario, especially because the factors that generate the violence are getting worse over time. At the same time, globalization is increasing the affects of violence in the region since criminal organizations have now become transnational entities that can affect almost every country without any territorial limitation.

Narcotraffic: The expansion of an international threat

Narcotrafficing has been the biggest threat to Latin America since the 1970s because of the levels of violence used by narcotrafficers, the corruption they promote, the expansion of their activities, the impact this has on the everyday lives of citizens and the health hazards produced by the use of narcotics and psychotropic substances. At the same time, the amount of money and workforce used by the states when trying to control all the stages in the production and commercialization of illegal drugs are a vast part of the national budgets in each country, amounting to a misuse of resources that could be used to promote development.

Almost every Latin American country is affected with this business. The Andean countries are the producers, and Central America, Venezuela, Brazil and the Southern Cone are the principal transit routes for the exportation of the substances. These routes are used in a dual interchange, where the illicit drugs are sent to the North American, European or Asian markets, and at the same time the criminals import weapons and firearms to guarantee their control over the illegal crops, the production zones and the marketing routes.

The most important examples of the magnitude of this problem are Mexico and Colombia, where the cartels, using the massive amounts of money they receive from their business, have been able to control massive areas of the national territory and threaten society and democracy. In the first case, the phenomenon is recent but with a significant magnitude, reaching 47 515 homicides between December 2006 and September 2011 (Montalvo, 2012 ) due to the action of the Tijuana, Sinaloa and Juarez cartels, among others.

In the Colombian case, the historic leftist guerrillas became cartels since the 1990s, using an eroded political speech that has lost all justification. Because of the actions of the FARC, the Cali, Medellin and Norte del Valle cartels, along with other criminal organizations, Colombia is perceived by the international community as a producer and exporter of cocaine, becoming a pariah on the global scene. However, after a positive transformation in the public policies against the criminal organizations, the Colombian situation is changing. During the period 2002-2009, the coca cultivation area was reduced by 33% and the tons of heroin produced decreased by 20% (Dirección Nacional de Estupefacientes, 2010).


The Latin American reality is a mixture of setbacks, conflicts and dangers that create a unique scenario where the tensions are constant but peace is maintained. Problems like violence, criminality, narcotrafficing and ideological divergences are structural and commonplace in many parts of the region, making an international consensus in dealing with these problems extremely difficult.

However, as most of the challenges for Latin America have international roots, their solution should be produced by a global initiative, with tools that share responsibility amongst countries that can maximize their contribution in certain areas to help create a coherent policy that produces joint solutions to common problems. The construction of a new continent is going to be possible only when all the countries understand their responsibility in the Latin American reality and the possibility they have to change it.


Diana Castillo has an MA in National Security and Defense from the Superior School of War in Colombia and an MA in Government with a Specialization in Counterterrorism from the Interdisciplinary Centre Herzliya in Israel. Is a former analyst and adviser in the Intelligence Direction in the Colombian army.


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[1] The UNODC statistics for the Americas include the rates from the United States, Canada and the Caribbean States. However, although the US  has a relatively high homicide rate compared to other countries with a similar socio-economic level, US crime rates in general have been declining since the mid 1990s, resulting in the steady downward trend of the Northern American homicide rate.

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