US and Latin America – the aftermath of 9/11

Updated: September 10, 2021 8:34 AM

The ‘Global War on Drugs’ now became the “Global War on Terror’. This wasn’t a mere shift in the nomenclature, it also was emblematic of the shift in preeminence of issues for the United States.

9 11 terror attackA flower seen in silhouette stands on the south reflecting pool at the 9/11 Memorial site in the lower section of Manhattan, New York City, U.S., September 2, 2021.(Photo source: Reuters)

By Dr Aparaajita Pandey, 

The 9/11 attacks can be considered one of the most defining moments for global security strategies and infrastructure. It not only led to the US forming stronger alliances, NATO entering a number of countries, middle-east (west Asia) becoming the focus of the world, it also led to a shifting of focus and reorganization of priorities. The ‘Global War on Drugs’ now became the “Global War on Terror’. This wasn’t a mere shift in the nomenclature, it also was emblematic of the shift in preeminence of issues for the United States.

It is widely believed that the American (US) focus shifted from their Latin American neighbours to Afghanistan and later to Iraq. While this could be brushed off as an obvious translocation of focus for a country that had suffered a major terrorist attack, it is important to remember that the US foreign policy stood on the pillars of the Monroe Doctrine and the Roosevelt Corollary. Terms like – America’s Backyard are emblematic of how integrally intertwined the US has been in the Latin American region. Throughout the Cold War, Latin America and the Caribbean experienced interventions by the US which was justified as the policy for containment of Communism.

Since the beginning of the decade of the 1970s the US became even more involved in certain Latin American nations, interfering in the domestic politics, stationing American soldiers and officers, to fight the burgeoning drug trade in the region. The list of American interventions in Latin America is long and the long – term consequences of this constant interference are vast. In the context of such an inseparable association that went on for decades, hurling itself over hurdles like anti-Americanism which is still alive in countries like Venezuela; it is difficult to imagine such a stark and complete shift in priorities that the Latin American region seemed forgotten.

The decade after 9/11 is often termed as the decade of benign neglect by the US for Latin America and the Caribbean. Some believe that this benign neglect led to a flourishing of regionalism and regional organisations in Latin America, which is also true to an extent. The region saw a mushrooming of regional organisations, each one claiming to be the one grouping that could be the answer to all of Latin American woes, however, none could achieve such a lofty goal and Latin America began to be described as ‘the spaghetti bowl of regional organisations’. On the other hand, there are also those who believe that the ignorance from the US led to a rapid rise in the rate of crime in the region. It is also claimed that Narco- trafficking and drug cartels grew manifold during the decade as the US was busy elsewhere. It has been previously stated that for Latin America, the focus on terror came at the cost of fighting organized crime in the region. While both the perspectives have elements of truth, they are built on the same foundational concept of American negligence, and fail to truly capture the entire picture.

The US’s security policy didn’t shift focus to the Middle East and began its era of complete negligence of Latin America, in fact it identified the Latin American region as a part of the war on terror. If one was to look at the military-to-military cooperation between US and Latin America during the decade and the SOUTHCOM perception of security threats, one would find that the US believed that the greatest security threats in the region were the internal conflict in Colombia and Peru as well as the triple border between Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay.

While Colombia had the FARC rebels, Peru had the Sendero Luminoso or the rising sun insurgents, these insurgent movements were internal rebellions but greatly benefited from thriving drug trade. The nexus between the drug cartels and the internal insurgent groups was recognized as symbiotic and the areas identified as sensitive and important were the triple border between Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay and in the Andes the border between Colombia and Ecuador. SOUTHCOM had evidence of the triple border being used as a safe haven for Hezbollah and Hamas insurgents as well as a connection between organized crime and international terrorism. The US then launched a multilateral mechanism to combat terrorism at the triple border called 3+1 which included the US, Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay.

In addition to the above there was a continued military presence to combat drug trafficking in the region. The US also encouraged a crackdown on money laundering and corruption. SOUTHCOM saw these international threats as complex and multitiered and encouraged inter-agency operations including US officials as well as domestic personnel from the respective countries.

The lack of an overt display of military or political intervention of the US in the region often leads us to believe that the US lost interest or shifted priorities post 9/11. While the geographical focus of the war on terror has been the middle-east; it doesn’t automatically translate to negligence of Latin America. The US has always focused on the region due to a plethora of reasons that range from geographical proximity to abundance of natural resources and that policy has not shifted focus, despite being reinterpreted and presented in a myriad of ways.

(The author is an Asst. Professor at Department of Public Policy, Amity University, NOIDA and a PhD in Latin American studies from Centre for Canadian, US, and Latin American Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online.)

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