Drug Trafficking a Prime Source of Financing for Venezuela’s Maduro Regime

The Venezuelan armed forces have become critical to the Maduro regime’s ability to move drugs around the world.

“Venezuela is currently an important bridge in global drug trafficking exports, from where between 250 and 350 metric tons per year leave, which has a street value of between 6 and 8 billion dollars.”

The Maduro regime in Venezuela has long maintained links to organized crime groups and drug trafficking organizations (DTOs).[i] However, a recent hack of documents from the Colombian Prosecutor’s Office has revealed the depths of the Maduro regime’s involvement with DTOs. According to the Argentine daily Infobae, the documents allege that Venezuelan Armed Forces are crucial to trafficking drugs through Venezuela. The outlet reports that they cooperate with Colombian guerrillas and are directly involved in the process of moving drugs, as opposed to passively permitting their passage and receiving bribes, as was the case in the past. The second excerpted article from Infobae states that the alleged center of these operations is Catatumbo, a borderland region between Colombia and Venezuela rich in coca production estimated to be 330 tons per year. The article paints a complex picture of rival criminal organizations from Mexico and Venezuela also occupying the same territory. The Maduro regime’s spiral into criminality will likely have meaningful impacts on the operational environment.[ii]Venezuelan Armed Forces’ increased role in Latin America’s drug trafficking operations will have spillover effects for most neighboring countries. At the same time, such activities are likely to deepen the Maduro regime’s staying power.


“Un informe reveló cómo el régimen de Maduro hizo del narcotráfico su principal fuente de financiamiento (A report revealed how the Maduro regime made drug trafficking its main source of financing),” Infobae (Argentine daily with excellent regional coverage), 7 November 2023. https://www.infobae.com/venezuela/2023/11/07/un-informe-revelo-como-el-regimen-de-maduro-hizo-del-narcotrafico-su-principal-fuente-de-financiamiento/

Leaked documents from the Colombian Prosecutor’s Office, analyzed and verified through additional interviews and other independent reports, reveal that Venezuelan military personnel, in association with Colombian guerrillas, are directly involved in drug trafficking operations…The epicenter of this network is the mountainous region of Catatumbo, on the border with Venezuela, an area that has a high concentration of coca leaf plantations…More than 330 tons transited through the state of Zulia from the Catatumbo region last year alone, an alarming figure given that experts say that Catatumbo supplies only about 60% of the drugs entering Venezuela. The rest is transported by rivers in the plains region and the jungle region in the south of the country.

“Vínculos del Gobierno venezolano con el narcotráfico en la región del Catatumbo en Colombia revelan filtraciones de documentos de la Fiscalía (Links of the Venezuelan Government with drug trafficking in the Catatumbo region in Colombia revealed by leaks of documents from the Prosecutor’s Office),” Infobae (an Argentine daily with excellent coverage), 8 November 2023. https://www.infobae.com/colombia/2023/11/08/vinculos-del-gobierno-venezolano-con-el-narcotrafico-centran-la-atencion-en-la-region-del-catatumbo-en-colombia/ In the department of Norte de Santander, there is also the presence of the Mexican cartels of Sinaloa and Jalisco New Generation, along with the Venezuelan gang known as the Tren de Aragua… The investigation also highlighted the change in the roles of participation of the Venezuelan authorities, which have gone from being bribed by the drug cartels to leading illegal operations themselves, which represents an increase in the complexity and severity of the criminal operations.


[i] For information on the Maduro regime’s links to criminal groups, see: Moises Rendón, “Maduro’s Mafia State,” Center for Strategic & International Studies, 31 October 2018. https://www.csis.org/analysis/maduros-mafia-state

[ii] For more information on how the Maduro regime uses criminal groups as an instrument of state power and power projection capability, see: Moises Rendón and Arianna Kohan, “Identifying and Responding to Criminal Threats from Venezuela,” Center for Strategic & International Studies, 22 July 2019. https://www.csis.org/analysis/identifying-and-responding-criminal-threats-venezuela

Image information:

Image: The Venezuelan armed forces have become critical to the Maduro regime’s ability to move drugs around the world.
Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ch%C3%A1vez_eyes_-_Venezuelan_armed_forces.png
Attribution: Wikimedia, CC BY 3.0 DEED

China Pursues Increased Access To Critical South American Resources

Chilean President Gabriel Boric has focused extensively on the country’s lithium reserves as a source of global influence and for Chile’s development.

“We highly value the spirit of collaboration and shared growth in the spirit of building a new world order based on peace and harmony among peoples.”

China has viewed Latin America as an important source of critical minerals, such as lithium, copper, graphite, cobalt, and nickel for well over a decade.[i] The tenth anniversary of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in Beijing, with representatives from nearly 130 countries including Chile’s President Gabriel Boric and Argentina’s President Alberto Fernández, provided another occasion for China to make further advances in the competition for access to Latin America’s critical minerals, specifically, lithium. While Chile has the region’s most developed lithium mining industry, Argentina is developing the sector, and Bolivia, with the largest lithium reserves, has the least developed mining sector. Chile permits only a small number of mining companies to operate in the lithium industry, one of which is China’s state-owned Tianqi Lithium. Meanwhile, China’s mining companies have made inroads in Argentina’s lithium industry. Ganfeng Lithium, for example, is a majority stakeholder in Argentina’s Caucharí-Olaroz operation, which will soon be one of the world’s top lithium production mines.

As per the first excerpted article from the second-largest daily newspaper in Chile, La Tercera, while in Beijing, President Boric reiterated Chile’s commitment to China’s BRI and thanked President Xi Jinping for the “spirit of collaboration and shared growth.” Boric also pronounced Chile’s support for a multipolar world order and thanked China for its focus on development. Meanwhile, according to the second excerpted article from Spain’s largest daily, El País, Boric announced a multimillion-dollar investment by the Chinese company Tingaran in battery production in Chile. Boric’s trip to Beijing for the tenth anniversary of the BRI is significant because it demonstrates China’s steadfast focus on lithium as a key driver for future economic growth and global economic governance through reusable battery technology. Further, China’s investment in Chilean battery production represents the first investment in Chile’s nascent battery production potential. Moving up the lithium value chain is a stated goal of the country’s National Lithium Strategy released earlier in Boric’s administration. China has worked hard to position itself as Chile’s long-term economic partner of choice and showing that it is interested in building value chains beyond mineral extraction in the country will be key to that endeavor.


“Boric sostiene bilateral con Xi Jinping: ‘Valoramos mucho el espíritu de colaboración y crecimiento compartido’ (Boric maintains bilateral with Xi Jinping: ‘We highly value the spirit of collaboration and shared growth’),” La Tercera (second largest daily newspaper in Chile), 16 October 2023. https://www.latercera.com/politica/noticia/boric-sostiene-bilateral-con-xi-jinping-valoramos-mucho-el-espiritu-de-colaboracion-y-crecimiento-compartido/FFSYQHIWVRDBLO4EIOOLE6ECVA/

While visiting with Xi Jinping, Boric announced: ‘We maintain and are going to defend multilateral spaces and the principle of ‘one China,’ a premise that has been observed in an unrestricted manner by our country throughout the more than 50 years of bilateral relations. Furthermore, we highly value the spirit of collaboration and shared growth in the spirit of building a new world order based on peace and harmony among peoples.’ For his part, the Chinese president maintained that ‘relations between Chile and China are one of the best in the Latin American and Caribbean region. Chile is the pioneer of the Belt and Road in that region. China pays a lot of attention to relations with Chile.’

“Boric anuncia una millonaria tilized de una empresa china para fabricar baterías de litio en Chile (Boric announces a million-dollar investment by a Chinese company to manufacture lithium batteries in Chile),” El País (Spain’s largest daily with some of the best coverage in Latin America), 16 October 2023. https://elpais.com/chile/2023-10-16/boric-anuncia-una-millonaria-inversion-de-una-empresa-china-para-fabricar-baterias-de-litio-en-chile.html The president of Chile…announced an investment of more than 250 million dollars by the Chinese group Tingaran, specialized in lithium, that will create hundreds of jobs…the group is engaged in the research and development, production and sales of lithium-ion battery cells applied to power systems of electric vehicles, including electric mining trucks, and other equipment. According to Boric, the most important thing is that ‘we are not going to limit ourselves only to extraction but we are going to create value chains and also transfer knowledge because one of the commitments that the company has made is to generate exchange programs so that Chilean professionals can travel to China and also train in the development of this industry. So we are going to be advancing the National Lithium Strategy with investments like these with which we are very happy.’


[i] For more information on China’s advance in important mining spaces such as the lithium industry, see: Ryan C. Berg and T. Andrew Sady-Kennedy, “South America’s Lithium Triangle: Opportunities for the Biden Administration,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, 17 August 2021. https://www.csis.org/analysis/south-americas-lithium-triangle-opportunities-biden-administration

Image Information:

Image: Chilean President Gabriel Boric has focused extensively on the country’s lithium reserves as a source of global influence and for Chile’s development.
Source : https ://www.flickr.com/photos/consejocultura/52377478252
Attribution: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 DEED

Scandal Threatens Stability of Colombia’s First Leftist Government

Senator Armando Benedetti campaigns for Colombian President Gustavo Petro

They took her [the nanny] to the Casa de Nariño, that is, to the Presidential Palace, for the polygraphy part.

A scandal has engulfed the administration of Colombian President Gustavo Petro, threatening his reform agenda.[i] Petro’s campaign allegedly accepted illegal campaign contributions, including narcotics money from the Maduro regime in Venezuela. The scandal emerged when Colombia’s leading weekly magazine, Semana, reported on an incident of cash being stolen from the home of Petro’s chief of staff, Laura Sarabia. Sarabia suspected her nanny of the theft, subjecting her to a coerced polygraph test and illegally wiretapping her phone, according to the outlet. Simultaneously, Semana has a recording in which Armando Benedetti, former senator and, until recently, Colombia’s Ambassador to Venezuela, discusses breaching campaign finance limits with Laura Sarabia and hints at dirty money in the Petro campaign. According to the article in the Argentine newspaper Clarín, a lieutenant colonel who was part of the illegal wiretapping and polygraph scheme to recover the stolen money was found dead, fueling speculations of potential foul play, although the death has been ruled a suicide.

The allegations against Petro, exacerbated by the president’s own obfuscation, are likely to pose the most serious challenge that Petro’s government has faced. The inability to adequately counter these accusations will impact the government’s stability and could even lead to Petro’s impeachment. As a result of these accusations, it is likely that Petro’s planned reforms—such as his proposal for “total peace” with guerrilla groups and criminal organizations[ii]—will stall in the country’s congress.[iii]


“‘El presidente falta a la verdad:’ Fiscalía General: Duro choque con Petro por inspección judicial en caso de la exniñera de Laura Sarabia (“The president is not telling the truth:” Attorney General’s Office: Hard clash with Petro for judicial inspection in the case of Laura Sarabia’s ex-nanny),” Semana (Colombia’s leading weekly magazine), 30 May 2023. https://www.semana.com/politica/articulo/el-presidente-falta-a-la-verdad-fiscal-general-duro-choque-con-petro-por-allanamiento-a-la-casa-de-narino-en-caso-de-la-exninera/202302/ 

They took her [the nanny] to the Casa de Nariño, that is, to the Presidential Palace, for the polygraphy part… During the time she was there, they never gave her access to a lawyer, despite the fact that they were accusing her of having committed a crime, and they also kept her incommunicado…When they did the polygraph, the Police told her that she was a thief and that she should return the money. The boss said that if she spent part of the money that nothing happened, and that she should return the rest.

“Crece el escándalo por una supuesta trama de corrupción en Colombia y Gustavo Petro sale a defenderse (The scandal grows over an alleged corruption plot in Colombia and Gustavo Petro comes out to defend himself),” Clarín (largest Argentine newspaper with excellent regional coverage), 15 June 2023. https://www.clarin.com/mundo/crece-escandalo-supuesta-trama-corrupcion-colombia-gustavo-petro-sale-defenderse_0_9qVh0AODUc.html 

The money stolen from Sarabia’s house, which gave rise to a scandal in the government, was allegedly Petro’s, there were five suitcases and 3,000 million pesos (about $718,000)…the scandal led to the resignation of Sarabia and the ambassador to Venezuela, Armando Benedetti, who was the one who allegedly leaked what happened to the press…In another twist to the crisis, police lieutenant colonel Óscar Dávila, assigned to presidential security and involved in the interrogation and illegal interceptions of Meza [the nanny], was found dead.


[i] For more information on the scandal itself from one of Colombia’s most respected political scientists, see: Sergio Guzmán, “Gustavo Petro’s Biggest Crisis Yet,” Americas Quarterly, 5 June 2023. https://www.americasquarterly.org/article/gustavo-petros-biggest-crisis-yet/

[ii] OE Watch has covered Petro’s political and security reforms in several different articles. For example, see: Ryan Berg, “Colombia’s Gustavo Petro Promises New Approach to Security and Drugs,” OE Watch, 10-2022. https://community.apan.org/wg/tradoc-g2/fmso/m/oe-watch-articles-2-singular-format/428038

[iii] OE Watch has covered Petro’s plans for and the prospects of Total Peace extensively. For more information, see: Ryan Berg, “Colombia’s Congress Authorizes ‘Total Peace’ Negotiation With Guerrilla and Criminal Groups,” OE Watch, 1-2023, https://community.apan.org/wg/tradoc-g2/fmso/m/oe-watch-articles-2-singular-format/434199

Image Information:

Image:  Senator Armando Benedetti campaigns for Colombian President Gustavo Petro 
Source:  https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Senador_Benedetti.jpg        
Attribution: CC-BY-SA 4.0

Iran’s Persistent and Growing Influence in Latin America

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi delivers a campaign speech.

“Our common position with these three countries is opposition to the hegemonic and unilateral system,” Raisi said.

Iran’s influence in the Western Hemisphere is often underestimated. Recent events have underscored that Iran is trying to grow its regional influence through a patient campaign that seeks to expand relations in authoritarian states in Latin America: namely, in Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba. Additionally, observers saw some unexpected activity when Iranian warships made a port call in Brazil in March 2023,[i] and Iran engaged in a flurry of diplomatic activity to solidify its Western Hemisphere presence in June 2023. Iran first sent its Foreign Minister and now President, Ebrahim Raisi, whose entourage was comprised of a “large political, economic, and scientific delegation,” aimed at signing strategic agreements with Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba according to Infobae, an Argentine outlet covering South America. Raisi spoke of a desire for a more multipolar world and denounced sanctions regimes at all three stops. Iran signed 19 strategic agreements to cooperate in various domains, most notably the oil industry during the trip to Venezuela reported in another article in Infobae. This cooperation is important because of how both countries use their cooperative agreements to flout international sanctions on their governments. Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega supported the right of Iran to pursue more nuclear weapons, according to Infobae. Iran’s engagement in the Western Hemisphere is often overshadowed by the efforts of China and Russia. However, Iran has close relationships with the region’s three dictatorships and seeks to build beyond those relationships by diversifying its regional partners.[ii] Authoritarian regimes under pressure from the international community continue to view Iran’s friendship as a critical lifeline for survival.


“El presidente de Irán llegó a Venezuela, primera parada de su gira por Latinoamérica con visitas a regímenes aliados (The president of Iran arrived in Venezuela, the first stop on his tour of Latin America with visits to allied regimes),” Infobae (Argentine outlet with excellent regional coverage), 12 June 2023. https://www.infobae.com/america/mundo/2023/06/12/el-presidente-de-iran-partio-hacia-venezuela-primera-parada-de-su-gira-por-latinoamerica-con-visitas-a-regimenes-aliados/

“Our common position with these three countries is opposition to the hegemonic and unilateral system,” Raisi said…The Iranian president defined relations with Caracas, Havana and Managua as ‘strategic’ and affirmed that this visit will mean ‘a turning point’ in the deepening of their ties…“We have important cooperation in the fields of defense, energy, oil, gas, refineries and the petrochemical sector,” Maduro said…On the trip to Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega, the Nicaraguan president, defended Iran’s right to acquire nuclear weapons.

“El régimen de Irán pretende consolidar su influencia en la región: su presidente visitará Venezuela, Nicaragua y Cuba (The Iranian regime intends to consolidate its influence in the region: its president will visit Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba),” Infobae (an Argentine outlet with excellent regional coverage), 7 June 2023. https://www.infobae.com/america/america-latina/2023/06/07/el-regimen-de-iran-pretende-consolidar-su-influencia-en-la-region-su-presidente-visitara-venezuela-nicaragua-y-cuba/

The trip will strengthen relations with the countries that Tehran considers ‘friends’ in economic, political and scientific matters…This is Raisi’s first trip to Latin America since he took office in August 2021…Last year Tehran and Havana agreed to strengthen their cooperation in technology and food security, during the visit to the Persian country of the Cuban deputy prime minister, Ricardo Cabrisas.


[i] For more information and context on this incident, please see: David Biller, “Iranian Warships in Rio de Janeiro Stirring Concern Abroad,” Associated Press, 2 March  2023, https://apnews.com/article/iran-ships-brazil-us-navy-rio-de-janeiro-2b6d98aca758c040e5e75293a05d9db9.

[ii] Iran’s attempts to broaden its engagement in Latin America have not been uniformly successful. See, for instance, the debacle that ensued when a plane full of suspected IRGC members landed and was seized in Argentina. See: Ryan Berg, “Venezuela’s Mystery Plane Shows Iran’s Strategic Penetration of Latin America,” OE Watch, 07-2022, https://community.apan.org/wg/tradoc-g2/fmso/m/oe-watch-articles-2-singular-format/420434.

Image Information:

Image: Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi delivers a campaign speech.
Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ebrahim_Raisi_delivers_speech_at_a_rally.jpg
Attribution: Wikimedia, CC-BY 4.0

Honduran Presidential Visit Kicks Off New Relations With China

President Xiomara Castro meets with a representative of Taiwan on her inauguration day in 2022

“Castro opened the visit… in Shanghai; starting the agenda in that important metropolis illustrates the interest in strengthening commercial ties.”

Honduran President Xiomara Castro campaigned on a diplomatic switch from her country’s recognition of Taiwan, recognized since 1949, to that of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Talk of abandoning Taiwan subsided after her election. However, she announced in March 2023 that the country would switch diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to the PRC in an effort to gain financing for a hydroelectric dam project and to lower its external debt burden.[i] President Castro made a weeklong visit to mainland China to inaugurate these new relations, where Honduras opened its first embassy and officially acceded to the Belt and Road Initiative, according to Prensa Latina, a Cuban government outlet. Castro visited the New Development Bank—commonly known as the BRICS Bank—and requested membership for Honduras, according to Prensa Latina. Castro followed that visit with a stop at Huawei headquarters.

Castro also secured a bilateral meeting with President Xi Jinping, according to La Prensa, a Honduran newspaper. He praised her courage, promised to negotiate a free trade agreement with Honduras, and agreed to promote the entrance of Honduran agricultural goods into the Chinese market. The outlet reported that Honduras will present China with a list of infrastructure projects for financing, likely focusing on ports. Honduras’ diplomatic switch to the PRC leaves Taiwan with just 13 remaining countries who recognize its sovereignty, seven of which are in Latin America and the Caribbean.[ii] The Western Hemisphere will remain the epicenter of the PRC’s efforts to isolate Taiwan diplomatically, with Central America and the Caribbean likely to be its principal focus.[iii]


“Honduras abre su embajada en China (Honduras opens its embassy in China),” Prensa Latina (Cuban government outlet that covers issues of importance to its allies), 11 June 2023. https://www.prensa-latina.cu/2023/06/11/honduras-abre-su-embajada-en-china

Honduras inaugurated its embassy, after China did so last week in its capital…Castro opened the visit…in Shanghai; and starting the agenda in that important metropolis illustrates the interest in strengthening commercial ties. In fact, she requested the country’s accession to the New Development Bank, popularly called the BRICS Bank, during a meeting with the president of the entity, the Brazilian Dilma Rousseff, and later spoke with executives of the Huawei technology company.

“Gobierno de Honduras pedirá el apoyo a China para puertos (Government of Honduras Will Ask China for Support for Ports),” La Prensa (Honduran newspaper based in the business capital of San Pedro Sula), 15 June 2023. https://www.laprensa.hn/honduras/politica-gobierno-honduras-pedira-apoyo-china-para-puertos-KI13931748

Several projects have been discussed since it was necessary to pass this phase of the president’s visit to go into specific issues…Naturally, infrastructure issues are a priority…Honduras and China recently signed 22 documents in Beijing and next week it is expected that Honduran products such as coffee and bananas will begin to reach China.


[i] To read more about potential lessons for Taiwan and its presence in Latin America and the Caribbean, see: Ryan Berg and Leland Lazarus, “What Taiwan Can Learn from Honduras’s Switch to China,” Foreign Policy, 31 March 2023. https://foreignpolicy.com/2023/03/31/latin-america-taiwan-china-honduras-united-states-diplomacy-tsai/

[ii] OE Watch has covered China’s expanding influence in Latin America, with a particular emphasis on Central America, where Taiwan is losing formal diplomatic allies. For example, see: Catalina Wedman, “China’s Growing Influence on the Latin American Economy,” OE Watch, October 2018, https://community.apan.org/wg/tradoc-g2/fmso/m/oe-watch-articles-singular-format/266517

[iii] For more on Taiwan’s future in the Western Hemisphere and its difficulty maintaining allies, see: Ryan Berg and Wazim Mowla, “Taiwan’s Future in Latin America and the Caribbean,” The Diplomat, 1 September 2022. https://thediplomat.com/2022/09/taiwans-future-in-latin-america-and-the-caribbean/

Image Information:

Image: President Xiomara Castro meets with a representative of Taiwan on her inauguration day in 2022
Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:01.27_%E3%80%8C%E5%89%AF%E7%B8%BD%E7%B5%B1%E7%8E%87%E5%9C%98%E5%87%BA%E5%B8%AD%E5%AE%8F%E9%83%BD%E6%8B%89%E6%96%AF%E5%85%B1%E5%92%8C%E5%9C%8B%E7%B8%BD%E7%B5%B1%E5%8D%A1%E8%95%AC%E6%A5%9A%E5%B0%B1%E8%81%B7%E5%85%B8%E7%A6%AE%E3%80%8D%E5%90%91%E5%8D%A1%E8%95%AC%E6%A5%9A%E7%B8%BD%E7%B5%B1%E7%95%B6%E9%81%B8%E4%BA%BA%E8%87%B4%E6%84%8F%E4%B8%A6%E5%91%88%E9%81%9E%E7%89%B9%E4%BD%BF%E5%9C%8B%E6%9B%B8_-_51845921976.jpg
Attribution: Wikimedia, CC-BY 2.0

China Celebrates Eyes Opportunity To Expand ‘Comprehensive Strategic Partnership’ With Mexico

A Mexican state dinner for Chinese President Xi Jinping, held by former Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto.

A Mexican state dinner for Chinese President Xi Jinping, held by former Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto.

“This year marks the 10th anniversary of the establishment of the comprehensive strategic partnership between the two countries.”

China-Mexico relations date back to 1972, when Mexico broke diplomatic ties with the Republic of China (Taiwan). For much of Mexico’s recent history, however, its economic and diplomatic relations have been dominated by its neighbor to the north. While its relationship with Mexico pales in comparison to that of the United States, China’s presence in Mexico continues to grow.[i] As noted in the excerpted article from business-focused Mexican daily El Economista, 2023 marks the tenth anniversary of the China-Mexico “comprehensive strategic partnership,” the highest form of partnership China maintains with foreign countries and one of seven such relationships in the Latin America region. The “comprehensive strategic partnership” category implies the full pursuit of cooperation and development on regional and international affairs. As noted in the article, China’s direct investment in Mexico grew 18 percent in 2022.[ii] Yet, the relationship goes beyond trade and investment. At a reception for Chinese Culture Day, Zhang Run, China’s Ambassador to Mexico, said China has a desire to strengthen its ties to Mexico and push together toward a multipolar world and the “democratization” of international affairs. Indeed, more recent controversies in the bilateral relationship have not managed to knock it off course. China’s role in producing chemical precursors for fentanyl, which have come to major public attention in recent years, has not damaged its ties to Mexico. President López Obrador insists that Mexico does not produce fentanyl but simply transits the finished product through the country to the United States after it arrives from China. López Obrador has sought help from the Chinese, according to Spanish daily El País. The outlet reported that China’s Foreign Ministry responded by proclaiming that there is no fentanyl trafficking between China and Mexico.[iii] While China-Mexico ties must be understood in the context of U.S.-Mexico relations, which continue to dominate Mexico’s orientation, China’s increased ties to Mexico have economic, diplomatic, and security implications for the operational environment, especially under López Obrador, who wants to build a buffer between Mexico and the United States by leveraging ties to China.


“China ve potencial en la relación con México (China sees potential in relations with Mexico),” El Economista (a Mexican newspaper focused on business and economics), 15 April 2023. https://www.eleconomista.com.mx/internacionales/China-ve-potencial-en-la-relacion-con-Mexico-20230415-0017.html 

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the establishment of the comprehensive strategic partnership between the two countries…Mexico and China have potential in exchange and cooperation in various areas such as culture, education, and tourism. In addition, the two countries are closely linked in the global industrial and supply chains, while direct investment from the Asian country to Mexico increased 18% in 2022.

“López Obrador insiste en que México no produce fentanilo y afirma que llega de China(López Obrador insists that Mexico does not produce fentanyl and that it arrives from China),” El País (the Spanish newspaper with hemispheric coverage), 5 May 2023. https://elpais.com/mexico/2023-05-05/lopez-obrador-insiste-en-que-mexico-no-produce-fentanilo-y-afirma-que-llega-de-china-tenemos-pruebas.htmlLópez Obrador affirmed that the shipment, intercepted this week in the port of Lázaro Cárdenas, is the latest evidence that the substance [fentanyl] is not produced in the country, but that it arrives finished to be sold in the U.S. market. “We already have proof,” said the president at a press conference. López Obrador announced that he will send a new letter to request the cooperation of the Xi Jinping government in the fight against drugs to identify suspicious shipments and prevent them from leaving Asia.


[i] For a more comprehensive history of Mexico’s ties to China, see: “The Evolution of PRC Engagement in Mexico,” Global Americans, 24 August 2022. https://theglobalamericans.org/2022/08/the-evolution-of-prc-engagement-in-mexico/

[ii] For more information on China’s expansion of investment in Mexico, see: “Why Chinese Companies are Investing Billions in Mexico,” New York Times, 3 February 2023. https://www.nytimes.com/2023/02/03/business/china-mexico-trade.html

[iii] For information on how cartels use social media to market and sell their product, see: Ryan Berg, “Latin America’s Cartels Embrace Social Media to Sell Drugs and Narco Culture,” OE Watch, 01-2021. https://community.apan.org/wg/tradoc-g2/fmso/m/oe-watch-articles-2-singular-format/380363

Image Information:

Image: A Mexican state dinner for Chinese President Xi Jinping, held by former Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto.
Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cena_de_Estado_que_en_honor_del_Excmo.Sr._Xi_Jinping,_Presidente_de_la_Rep%C3%BAblica_Popular_China,_y_de_su_esposa,_Sra._Peng_Liyuan%288959188433%29.jpg
Attribution: Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 2.0

Organized Crime Engulfing Ecuador

 Ecuador’s Police patrol streets of the capital, Quito, after civilian unrest.

Ecuador’s Police patrol streets of the capital, Quito, after civilian unrest.

“If the State Public Security Council declares these groups as terrorists, the Armed Forces of Ecuador may intervene in security matters without the need to amend the country’s Constitution.”

For several years, violent crime has risen rapidly in Ecuador. Guayaquil, the country’s second largest city and its main port, now contends with a homicide rate of 46 per 100,000 citizens, making it one of the most dangerous cities in Latin America. A host of unsavory criminal organizations have established an operational presence in Ecuador, from Colombian criminal organizations operating over the border, to Mexican cartels, and even the Albanian mafia.[i]

Criminal organizations take advantage of Ecuador’s weak governance, convenient ports, and dollar economy. First, Ecuador’s weak governance translates into safe havens for many groups. Second, the country’s Pacific coastline provides a multitude of options for shipping illicit products out of Ecuador. Lastly, the country’s dollarization means the proceeds from the sales of illicit products can be easily laundered. The excerpted article from Argentina-based Infobae, reports that Ecuadorian President Guillermo Lasso, under significant pressure to improve security, plans to declare criminal organizations “terrorist groups.” By doing so, Lasso intends to use Ecuador’s military to combat criminal organizations and bypass what would otherwise require constitutional changes.[ii] Meanwhile, as the Spanish daily El País reports, Lasso’s approval ratings have not only slipped dramatically, but he now faces impeachment charges in Congress. Lasso has lost significant support because of the country’s public insecurity, and the impeachment charges involve a claim that his government has been penetrated by criminal organizations.[iii] Ecuador’s slide into insecurity illustrates what is at stake when weak institutions, weak state capacity, and transnational criminal organizations converge.


“El gobierno de Ecuador busca declarar a las bandas criminales como terroristas (The Ecuadorian government seeks to declare criminal gangs as terrorists),” Infobae (the Argentina-based outlet with some of the best regional coverage of any Latin American outlet), 20 April 2023. https://www.infobae.com/america/america-latina/2023/04/20/el-gobierno-de-ecuador-busca-declarar-a-los-grupos-criminales-como-terroristas/

The Ecuadorian government wants the State Public Security Council to declare criminal groups as terrorists. The purpose of the measure is for the Armed Forces to be able to participate permanently in what the Minister of Government, Henry Cucalón, has called a war due to the “unprecedented terrorist wave” that the country is facing. If the State Public Security Council declares these groups as terrorists, the Armed Forces of Ecuador may intervene in security matters without the need to amend the country’s Constitution. Currently, Ecuador’s Congress is processing partial constitutional reforms so that the military can support the police in internal control and in the fight against organized crime.

“Las claves del juicio político del presidente de Ecuador Guillermo Lasso (The keys to the political trial of Ecuadorian President Guillermo Lasso),” El País (the Spanish newspaper with hemispheric coverage), 24 April 2023. https://elpais.com/america-colombia/2023-04-24/las-claves-del-juicio-politico-del-presidente-de-ecuador-guillermo-lasso.htmlThis is the first time that a president has been subjected to impeachment since the approval of the Ecuadorian Constitution in 2008…In the end, the political trial will be determined in a complex social situation with a high level of insecurity affected by organized crime that keeps the population in anguish with extortion and violent deaths.


[i] For more information on Ecuador’s descent into criminal insecurity and the role of Albanian organized crime, see: “Ecuador’s Crime Wave and Its Albanian Connection,” Americas Quarterly, 12 April 2023. https://americasquarterly.org/article/ecuadors-crime-wave-and-its-albanian-connection/; for more information on the Mexican connection, see: Ryan Berg, “Mexican Criminal Organizations Consolidate Their Positions in South America,” OE Watch, 05-2022. https://community.apan.org/wg/tradoc-g2/fmso/m/oe-watch-articles-2-singular-format/416680

[ii] Ecuador’s president has called for Ecuador to receive military and police assistance like the U.S. aid program Plan Colombia. For more information, see: Ryan Berg, “President Lasso Calls for ‘Plan Ecuador’ Amid Growing Security Concerns,” OE Watch, December 2021. https://community.apan.org/wg/tradoc-g2/fmso/m/oe-watch-articles-2-singular-format/400849

[iii] For more information on Ecuador’s complex impeachment process, see: “Crisis in Quito: President Guillermo Lasso Heads to Impeachment Vote,” Council on Foreign Relations, 9 May 2023. https://www.cfr.org/blog/crisis-quito-president-guillermo-lasso-heads-impeachment-vote-0

Image Information:

Image: Ecuador’s Police patrol streets of the capital, Quito, after civilian unrest.
Source:  https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Police_Ecuador_Riot.jpg 
Attribution: Wikimedia, CC-BY 2.0

Brazil’s President Pushes ‘Peace Club’ for Russia’s War in Ukraine

Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva accepts the credentials of the Chinese ambassador.

Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva accepts the credentials of the Chinese ambassador.

“From the point of view of Brazilian diplomacy, it would be precisely the lack of alignment with either side that would make Brazil an accredited actor to participate in sewing a way out of the impasse.”

Brazilian President Luiz Inácio ‘Lula’ da Silva entered office with a flurry of diplomatic activity and initiatives. Most prominently, Lula has pushed for the idea of a “Peace Club” to mediate an end to Russia’s war in Ukraine. This was a principal topic of discussion on Lula’s first state visit to China, according to Voz de America, the American public-private media partnership with excellent media coverage of Latin America.[i] The outlet reports that Lula discussed his plan at length with Chinese President Xi Jinping, even mentioning it in a public appearance, but he was unable to secure Chinese participation. Nevertheless, Lula has positioned Brazil, according to this reporting, to be a neutral arbiter in the current conflict, at least rhetorically. The reality may be much different, however, according to BBC Brasil, the Brazilian version of the popular British media outlet. Lula’s comments indicate that he considers both Russia and Ukraine at fault for the war, and the West responsible for “encouraging” greater fighting. While Lula has tried to pursue non-alignment in Brazil’s foreign policy, serving as a prominent spokesperson for Global South countries on the war in Ukraine,[ii] these comments and his recent trip to China have called into question Brazil’s neutrality as a potential arbiter in the war.


“Lula pide un ‘grupo de paz’ para negociar un acuerdo entre Ucrania y Rusia (Lula calls for a ‘peace group’ to negotiate an agreement between Ukraine and Russia),” Voz de America (the American public-private media partnership with regional coverage of Latin America), 16 April 2023. https://www.vozdeamerica.com/a/lula-pide-un-grupo-de-paz-para-negociar-un-acuerdo-entre-ucrania-y-rusia/7052859.html

Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva on Sunday proposed the creation of a group of countries not involved in the war between Russia and Ukraine to mediate for peace, saying he had discussed the matter with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping. Lula had previously said that the group should bring together countries that would not ‘encourage’ the war, adding that nations that supply weapons had to be convinced to stop doing so. Lula repeated that the decision to start the war was ‘taken by two countries,’ seeming to blame Ukraine as well, adding that ending the war will be more difficult as more nations will have to be persuaded.

“Brasil tem chances reais de mediar negociações de paz na Ucrânia? (Does Brazil have a real chance of mediating peace talks in Ukraine?),” BBC Brasil (the Brazilian version of the popular British media outlet), 15 April 2023. https://www.bbc.com/portuguese/articles/cyxvz4y9gwpo   Lula’s position has been seen as ambivalent internationally. Although Brazil formally condemns the Russian invasion of Ukrainian territories in multilateral organizations such as the United Nations (UN)…Lula has already said that the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, was as responsible for the crisis as the Russian leader, Vladimir Putin. Recently, Lula suggested that Ukraine would have to give up the territory of Crimea in order to end the conflict, which was rejected by the Ukrainians and displeased western powers. From the point of view of Brazilian diplomacy, it would be precisely the lack of alignment with either side that would make Brazil an accredited actor to participate in sewing a way out of the impasse.


[i] For more coverage of the Lula-Xi state visit, see: Oliver Stuenkel, “Courting Lula, China Seeks to Show It Has More to Offer than the U.S.,” Americas Quarterly, 12 April 2023. https://www.americasquarterly.org/article/courting-lula-china-seeks-to-show-it-has-more-to-offer-than-the-u-s/

[ii] For more information on how Latin America has pursued a strategy of non-alignment on Russia’s war in Ukraine and other issues, see: Ryan C. Berg et al., “A Hesitant Hemisphere: How Latin America Has Been Shaped by the War in Ukraine,” Center for Strategic & International Studies, 27 February 2023. https://www.csis.org/analysis/hesitant-hemisphere-how-latin-america-has-been-shaped-war-ukraine

Image Information:

Image: Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva accepts the credentials of the Chinese ambassador.
Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/palaciodoplanalto/52666896871
Attribution: Flickr, CC-BY 2.0

El Salvador’s State of Emergency Marks One Year With No End in Sight

 Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele delivers a speech on security policy.

 Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele delivers a speech on security policy.

“The state of exception suspends various constitutional guarantees. It allows arbitrary arrests without a warrant, interrupts freedom of association, the right to legal defense, and extends the term of administrative detention to 15 days (when it is normally 72 hours). Under this special regime, the government brought thousands of soldiers and police onto the streets to carry out mass captures. Bukele arrested more than 65,000 suspected gang members, according to official figures, although multiple organizations estimate that thousands could be innocent.”

As part of an effort to fight the notorious MS-13 and Barrio 18 gangs, Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele declared a special state of emergency suspending habeas corpus and incarcerating fully 2 percent of the country’s adult population.[i] Recently, Bukele’s state of emergency turned one year old, reports France24, the public-private media partnership associated with the French state. The outlet details how popular the plan is among Salvadorans, reporting they appear willing to accept curtailment of rights in favor of greater security from the country’s gangs, suggesting El Salvador’s state of emergency is unlikely to end anytime soon.

Throughout his tenure, Bukele has shifted his strategy for fighting transnational organized crime, reports El Faro, the Salvadoran investigative outlet often at odds with the president. At the beginning of his presidency, El Faro broke the news that Bukele had negotiated a secret pact with the country’s gangs, seeking to lower the homicide rate and earn their political support in exchange for turning a blind eye to drug trafficking and other activities. After a spate of murders in March 2022, however, Bukele terminated the informal agreement and reversed course drastically. The media outlet reports a decline in homicides in many neighborhoods throughout the country. The perceived success fo Bukele’s crime-fighting strategy has inspired so-called “Plan Bukeles”—as multiple leaders repeat calls to imitate El Salvador’s internal security plan.[ii] Fighting transnational criminal organizations by deprioritizing human rights and allowing presidents to accrete greater power during states of emergency also risks democratic backsliding and consolidating authoritarian political projects.


“Qué ha pasado en El Salvador tras un año bajo el régimen de excepción (What has happened in El Salvador after a year under the emergency regime?),” France24 (the public-private media partnership associated with the French state), 28 March 2023. https://www.france24.com/es/am%C3%A9rica-latina/20230327-qu%C3%A9-ha-pasado-en-el-salvador-tras-un-a%C3%B1o-bajo-el-r%C3%A9gimen-de-excepci%C3%B3n

After a year of emergency regime, El Salvador has not come out of its ‘war against gangs.’ The state of exception was originally approved at the end of March 2022 and was implemented by President Nayib Bukele to fight gang violence in the country…Since then, it has been renewed twelve times by the Legislative Assembly of El Salvador…a number that contrasts with what is permitted constitutionally…The Constitution of the Republic establishes very clearly that the emergency regime can only be extended once, that is, for 30 days.

“El año en el que la excepción se convirtió en la norma (The year the exception became the norm),” El Faro (the Salvadoran investigative outlet often at odds with the president), 23 December 2022. https://elfaro.net/es/202212/el_salvador/26652/lo-mejor-y-lo-mas-leido-en-este-ano-bajo-regimen.htm Bukele found his political crusade in the state of emergency in the face of the announcement that he would make six months later, his desire to run for re-election in 2024, violating several articles of the Constitution. Since then, brandishing his state of emergency, Bukele has presented himself as the strongman who will put an end to the criminal groups that have been bleeding and extorting Salvadorans for decades. Since March 2022, more than 60,000 Salvadorans have been detained, doubling the country’s prison population in nine months.


[i] For more background on Bukele’s security plan and its impact on the country, and especially its democracy, see: “Democracy Dies Under Mano Dura: Anti-Crime Strategies in the Northern Triangle,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, 12 April 2023. https://www.csis.org/analysis/democracy-dies-under-mano-dura-anti-crime-strategies-northern-triangle

[ii] For more information on the popularity of “Plan Bukele” regionwide, see: “Nayib Bukele’s Growing List of Latin American Admirers,” Americas Quarterly, 16 February 2023. https://www.americasquarterly.org/article/nayib-bukeles-growing-list-of-latin-american-admirers/

Image Information:

Image: Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele delivers a speech on security policy.
Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Discurso_de_Nayib_Bukele.jpg  
Attribution: Wikimedia, CC-BY-SA 4.0

Western Efforts To Isolate Russia and Iran Falter in Latin America

Naval vessels of the Islamic Republic of Iran Navy.

Naval vessels of the Islamic Republic of Iran Navy.

“In recent days, Russian media in Spanish, such as Sputnik and Russia Today, highlighted the rejection of the various Latin American governments to the requests of…Berlin. ‘The arms race in Ukraine does not have the support of South America,’ the outlets declared.”

Latin American countries have often spoken in terms of “neutrality” as they have tried to remain “non-aligned” regarding the Russia-Ukraine war.[i] While some countries in the region have condemned Russia’s invasion, none has joined the Western-led sanctions campaign. Nor has any of the six Latin American countries with old Soviet weaponry stepped forward to donate it to Ukraine. Underscoring these trends is the first article from the Spanish-language outlet BBC Mundo, covering German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s recent trip to Argentina, Brazil, and Chile. At each stop, Scholz implored his counterparts to consider donating their Soviet weapons systems to Ukraine.[ii] All three leaders firmly declined. For his part, Brazilian President Luiz Inácio ‘Lula’ da Silva even blamed both Russia and Ukraine for the current conflict. Colombian President Gustavo Petro said he would rather see Colombia’s equipment become “junk” than send it to Ukraine where it could prolong the war. Latin American countries have been similarly reluctant to turn away from Iran. According to the second accompanying article from Argentina’s leading daily newspaper, La Nación, two Iranian warships sanctioned by the United States recently docked in Rio de Janeiro. Taken together, these developments suggest neither Russia’s war in Ukraine nor Iran’s domestic crackdowns on protestors and its provision of kamikaze drones to Russia for use in Ukraine have managed to isolate these countries in Latin America.


“Por qué los países latinoamericanos se han negado a enviar armas a Ucrania (Why Latin American countries have refused to send weapons to Ukraine),” BBC Mundo (the Spanish-language outlet of the popular British state-owned network), 3 February 2023. https://www.bbc.com/mundo/noticias-america-latina-64506590

During a meeting with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who is visiting several Latin American countries this week, Fernández clarified that Argentina “is not thinking of sending weapons” to the conflict zone. A few days earlier, his peers in Colombia, Mexico, and Brazil had made similar claims…In recent days, Russian media in Spanish such as Sputnik and Russia Today, highlighted the rejection of the various Latin American governments to the requests of Berlin.

“Brasil permite que dos buques de guerra iraníes atraquen en Río pese a las presiones de EE.UU (Brazil allows two Iranian warships to dock in Rio despite US pressure),” La Nación (Argentina’s leading daily newspaper), 28 February 2023. https://www.lanacion.com.ar/el-mundo/brasil-permite-que-dos-buques-de-guerra-iranies-atraquen-en-rio-pese-a-las-presiones-de-eeuu-nid28022023/

Once Lula’s trip [to the White House] ended, the docking of the ships was authorized. Vice Admiral Carlos Eduardo Horta Arentz, deputy chief of the Brazilian Navy General Staff, gave his approval for the ships to dock in Rio between February 26 and March 4, according to an announcement published on February 23…The Brazilian Navy authorizes a foreign ship to dock in Brazil, but only with prior authorization from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which takes into account the request of the embassy in question and the logistics…Diplomacy with Iran was one of the highlights of Lula’s attempts to bolster Brazil’s international position during his previous presidential terms. In 2010, he traveled to Tehran to meet then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as he tried to broker a US-Iran nuclear deal.


[i] For more background on Latin America’s response to Russia’s war in Ukraine, see: Ryan C. Berg et al., “A Hesitant Hemisphere: How Latin America Has Been Shaped by the War in Ukraine,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, 12 February 2023. https://www.csis.org/analysis/hesitant-hemisphere-how-latin-america-has-been-shaped-war-ukraine

[ii] For more information on the estimated six countries in the region that could donate Soviet-era weapons systems to Ukraine, see: Jeff Seldin, “U.S. Pushing Central, South American Countries to Give Ukraine Quick Military Boost,” Voice of America, 20 January 2023. https://www.voanews.com/a/us-pushing-central-south-american-countries-to-give-ukraine-quick-military-boost-/6927591.html

Image Information:

Image:  Naval vessels of the Islamic Republic of Iran Navy
Source:  https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ceremony_to_welcome_the_33rd_and_send-off_the_34th_naval_groups_of_the_Islamic_Republic_of_Iran_Navy_%2813%29.jpg 
Attribution: Wikimedia, CC-BY-4.0