By Adam Siegel
As part of a recent crackdown, Colombian authorities have seized some of the latest tools favored by drug trafficking groups. Forget private planes, speedboats, and homemade submarines. These guys are investing in backhoes and bulldozers -- because some of Latin America's best organized criminal gangs have gone into the mining business.
Colombia's drug trafficking organizations -- from rebel groups like the FARC and ELN to paramilitary successor gangs known locally as Bacrim -- are methodically asserting control over illegal mining operations in the country, including the unlicensed extraction of gold and other metals thought to compose at least 30 percent of Colombia's total mineral exploitation. Current Minister of Mines Mauricio Cardenas has argued that unlicensed mining "should be given the same treatment as drug trafficking," while the recently-retired chief of the National Police, General Oscar Naranjo, calls the involvement of drug gangs with mining the greatest future challenge for Colombian law enforcement.
With Latin America in the midst of a new "gold rush" (and the price of gold rising from $270 to as much as $1,800 per ounce over the past decade), expanding to mining is in many ways a logical step for Colombian gangs. Profit from mining operations is high and relatively low-risk compared to other revenue-generating activities like cocaine trafficking, extortion, or kidnapping for ransom. In a mineral-rich region like Antioquia- -- here royalties from legal gold mining already provide over 45 percent of state revenue -- the governor is clear about the changing calculus for drug gangs: "Gold is now more lucrative than coca."
Unauthorized mining itself is not new in Colombia, where small-scale, artisanal mining has been practiced for hundreds of years with relatively little interference from the state. Many of the illegal mining operations are plainly visible, but Colombian authorities are often reluctant to shut down mines because they don't want to trigger unrest by depriving poor miners of their livelihoods. These miners are treated more as opportunists than as criminals, lack of permits notwithstanding.
But this laxity has opened doors for criminal gangs, whose physical presence at the mines is (in many cases) minimal. Reports from local media and authorities detail a number of methods used by groups like the FARC or prominent Bacrim like the surging Rastrojos: Some charge a five to 10 percent "tax" on daily production or monthly earnings, while others charge "protection" fees or make money by providing heavy machinery, like the aforementioned bulldozers.
Yet the sheer scale of these illegal armed groups' involvement in the industry is quickly changing the government's calculus. President Juan Manuel Santos called the new trend "a cancer," and his administration has launched a number of offensives aimed specifically at shuttering these operations. In the Cordoba department, for example, the first phase of Operation Trojan ended in July with more than 400 arrests, 87 mines closed, and 155 bulldozers in state hands. In all of 2011, Colombian authorities shut down 276 mines and arrested more than 1,200 people. By May 2012, an unofficial accounting by the National Police showed 363 closed mines and at least 900 arrests.
The urgency of the Santos administration underscores some serious security challenges: Revenue from mines helps bankroll a decades-long insurgency, while competition for access to resources stokes violence among illegal groups and within the local communities already burdened with poverty and high levels of forced displacement. The environmental impact, in the form of mercury runoff and pollution, is severe.
The alarm is being raised in neighboring Peru as well, where the business consulting firm Macroconsult recently issued a headline-generating report estimating that illegal mining profits surpassed those of drug trafficking last year. With Peru's coca economy again on the rise and less concrete evidence that the rebel group Shining Path is making the same mining inroads as insurgents in Colombia, the issue of illegal mining still has the "social problem" and "economic issue" veneer seen previously in Peru's northern neighbor. Mexican authorities, meanwhile, have taken a more aggressive stance, opening a number of investigations into the escalating ‘protection' fees that drug traffickers like the Gulf Cartel and Los Zetas are said to be charging local mine operators.
The details of the problem vary from country to country, but there are implications for Latin America as a whole -- and for the region's mining industry, with more than $425 billion in investments already announced over the next ten years. As demonstrated in Colombia, the profits from supporting and extorting illegal mining are too large (and too easy) to pass up. By some estimates, in the past five years the FARC has transitioned into making some 20 percent of its total earnings from mining operations and 35 percent from drug trafficking. Put another way, that's hundreds of thousands of dollars in monthly income (for relatively little work) going to the rebel group's locally operating fronts. Countless additional illicit funds from drug trafficking are also laundered through these operations because they ultimately produce a legal item.
Organizations like the FARC, with operatives in Ecuador and Venezuela, are well-positioned to extend their mining ventures into those countries. In fact, there is evidence they already have. Groups like the Zetas are present in Mexico and Guatemala, and they have shown no hesitation in taking on new activities as they expand through Central America. Indeed, a key lesson here is that even in Colombia -- long the cocaine-producing capital of the world -- traffickers are always looking for ways to keep their income fluid and diversified (and, according to some reports, are even willing to team up with rivals to do so).
For the global mineral market, it is unclear whether the trend is toward dominating the "illegal" industry or extorting the legal one. Either way, the presence of these groups may create an unwelcome new "gold standard" for the region: greater violence, more corruption, and a higher cost of doing business.
Adam Siegel is a researcher in Eurasia Group's Latin America practice.
EITAN ABRAMOVICH/AFP/Getty Images
By Adam Siegel
Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos is likely to open the Sixth Summit of the Americas in Cartagena next month with a standard welcome for Barack Obama and the 33 other leaders of the Western Hemisphere, but maybe there's a more fitting greeting for the U.S. president: "This is an intervention." After decades of partnering with the U.S. to pursue an aggressive, often controversial 'war on drugs,' a number of Latin American leaders say they're ready to discuss major shifts in regional anti-drug policy. Some of them have begun talk of "decriminalization" -- and they want to do it at the Summit, where the United States will have no choice but to talk up the merits of the prohibition policies it has long favored.
The former presidents of Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico generated headlines in 2009 by jointly declaring that "the war on drugs has failed" and calling for decriminalization of marijuana, but the commentary was dismissed in some quarters as an easy argument to make for men no longer politically accountable as heads of state. Since then, however, several sitting Latin American leaders (on both the left and right) have called for candid debate of current drug policy. Among them: Mexico's Felipe Calderon, Costa Rica's Laura Chinchilla, Argentina's Cristina Kirchner, Guatemala's Otto Perez Molina, and Colombia's Santos -- who told Britain's The Observer last year that "A new approach should try and take away the violent profit that comes with drug trafficking... If that means legalizing, and the world thinks that's the solution, I will welcome it."
Santos' caveat -- "[if] the world thinks that's the solution" -- nods to the global reach of Latin America's drug trafficking organizations, underscoring the desire for a debate that includes producers and consumers (who are concentrated in the U.S. and Europe). This distinction is important; indeed, personal consumption of drugs like marijuana and cocaine is already technically decriminalized in Mexico, Costa Rica, and Colombia, while the total number of convictions for personal drug possession in Guatemala and Argentina combined was just 161 in 2009, according to the Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission. So when an ex-military general like Perez or a former defense minister like Santos talks about decriminalization, it's not because they care so much about personal liberties. Rather, they have one major goal in mind: choking off the resources that fuel drug cartels and the violence they practice.
As Perez explained recently in advance of a Central American conference on alternative drug strategy sponsored by his administration in Antigua, "drugs are expensive precisely because they are prohibited...traffickers will lose if they cease to be profitable." While no detailed proposal is yet on the table, his idea of decriminalization is clear: create a legal framework to make the production and transport of cocaine legal, at least throughout Central America -- a region through which approximately 80 percent of the cocaine heading to the United States stops. Bringing the business of this $37 billion industry out into the open, it is assumed, would reduce the imperative of traffickers to corrupt public officials and their need to use violence against both governments and rivals for access to the best trafficking routes.
Other leaders, from Vice President Joe Biden to Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega, have rejected the decriminalization proposals out of hand. Nevertheless, the coordinator of Obama's trip to Colombia recently indicated that the U.S. was "ready to have a good dialogue between all countries to hear their views," though he reiterated that U.S. opposition to any legalization will not change. Of the suggestions offered at the Guatemala conference last weekend, some could be endorsed by the U.S. -- such as the creation of a regional Central American court for trying traffickers that would reduce local corruption and relieve pressure on national justice systems, while others -- mandating that the U.S. take "co-responsibility" and pay individual countries for every drug raid or plant eradicated -- don't stand a chance.
Obama's challenge at the Summit will be to offer policy alternatives to the status quo. Latin American leaders warn that Washington has asked them to take tough choices over the years, and they want to see the U.S. demonstrate the political courage to consider a few of their own. Latin Americans are far from united on decriminalization or any other single solution, but the gathering in Cartagena will make clear that they have become increasingly willing and able to propose new ideas they know that Washington won't like. If Guatemala's Perez Molina gets his way, we'll even see him start discussions on a formal drug transit corridor for moving cocaine between South America and the United States.
Wartime U.S. presidents talk often of the need to "listen to the generals on the ground." In coming years, beginning in Cartagena, Washington can expect its "frontline partners" in the war on drugs to offer up strategies and ideas that U.S. policymakers won't like. Some Latin American leaders may give Obama a break during an election year, but they aren't prepared to wait much longer.
Adam Siegel is a researcher in Eurasia Group's Latin America practice.
LUIS ROBAYO/AFP/Getty Images
By Carlos Ramirez
The death of Mexico's Interior Secretary Francisco Blake in a helicopter crash on Nov. 11 initially sparked fears of foul play, perhaps by drug traffickers. The early evidence, however, points to a tragic accident caused by bad weather and all but rules out any sabotage or criminal intent. As a result, the policy ramifications of his death will be limited.
The government immediately called for an exhaustive inquiry into the accident and has been forthcoming with evidence. The Ministry of Communication, formally in charge of the investigations, provided enough information in the days following the crash to dispel speculation that foul play was involved. According to analysis, the best explanation so far is that heavy fog in the area contributed to pilot error that resulted in the helicopter crashing on a hillside. There is no evidence of mechanical failure or signs of sabotage.
The similarity to an earlier incident likely prompted the government's relative openness. The accident occurred three years after the death of the former interior secretary Juan Camilo Mourino in a plane crash in Mexico City. Mourino's death also initially generated suspicions of sabotage by drug traffickers and that speculation likely underpinned the government's response this time around.
Like Mourino, Blake was a close associate of President Felipe Calderon. He joined the administration in 2010 as Calderon's fourth interior secretary. Blake and Calderon grew close when both served in the lower chamber of congress between 2000 and 2003. Although he was a surprise choice to head the Interior Secretariat, he impressed with a low-key but effective approach to negotiating with the opposition.
The policy implications of Blake's death, however, will be limited. The Interior Secretariat plays an important role in government affairs ranging from congressional negotiations to elections, but it is more a facilitator than policymaker. Also, all major initiatives-such as labor reform-are on hold until the next president takes office (there is only one full congressional session before the July 2012 presidential election). The secretariat has also ceded much of its earlier oversight of security policy to other agencies. And while Blake was an effective mediator between different institutions involved in day-to-day security policy, his death will not disrupt policies designed and implemented by the Public Security Secretariat, the Secretariats of Defense and Navy, and the Attorney General's Department.
Carlos Ramirez is an analyst in Eurasia Group's Latin America practice.
FRANCISCO VEGA/AFP/Getty Images
By Heather Berkman
Guatemala's presidential campaign has been full of twists and turns, with the most recent bump coming on Wednesday, when the indigenous organization Waqib Kej presented a letter to the United Nations denouncing former Army General Otto Perez Molina for his alleged involvement in acts of genocide and torture during the country's long civil war. Perez Molina also happens to be the right-of-center Patriot Party presidential candidate and favorite to win Guatemala's September 11 election. His competitor is former first lady Sandra Torres, who last March divorced her husband, current President Alvaro Colom, in order to "marry the people of Guatemala" -- or, in other words, to claim eligibility for her own presidential bid. The turbulent campaign only mirrors Guatemala's larger woes. And no matter who secures the presidency, the country seems unlikely to get it together anytime soon.
Guatemalan politics over the past few years have been reminiscent of a dark and twisted telenovela. This is the country where a lawyer planned his own death and posthumously released a video blaming the government for it, and where just last week famed Argentine singer Facundo Cabral was gunned down in his car. Since the May 2011 start of the election period, more than 30 candidates for office -- ranging from local councils to mayorships -- have been murdered, and members of the supreme election tribunal have received death threats. The alarming events led Jose Miguel Insulza, the secretary general of the Organization of American States, to express concern about rising tensions leading up to the national elections.
The country's troubles are also what have enabled Perez Molina to soar to the top of public opinion polls. While the allegations of human rights abuses are nothing new, little concrete evidence has been presented to date, and Perez Molina has capitalized on his anti-crime stance to curry favor with voters. Torres, meanwhile, is waging an uphill battle to reverse the election tribunal's decision that her former marriage makes her ineligible to run for president.
But whatever happens on election day, the new administration will have a tough time lifting Guatemala out of the morass it finds itself in. Since he entered office in January 2008, President Colom has seemingly lurched from one disaster to the next and has failed to build enough support in Guatemala's unruly and fragmented legislature to pass much-needed tax reforms. Meanwhile, drug traffickers from Mexico have extended their networks through the country, crime and violence have sapped government resources and stymied investment, and the government repetitively has had to turn to multilateral financial institutions and foreign governments for support. Perez Molina may promise to usher in change and a heavy hand on security, but following through on his agenda and bringing Guatemala back on track may be more than what this former military man has bargained for.
Heather Berkman is an analyst in Eurasia Group's Latin America practice.
JOHAN ORDONEZ/AFP/Getty Images
By Ian Bremmer and David Gordon
An increasingly ferocious and costly battle with drug cartels will continue to occupy much of the Mexican government's time and resources in 2011. There's a serious risk of more dramatic episodes of violence -- including of higher-profile assassination attempts on government officials, security forces, and business figures.
Since taking office in Dec. 2006, President Felipe Calderon has presided over a startling rise in drug-related murders. The government is gaining ground in the fight against organized crime as the military and federal police generate important arrests, cartel members are killed, and drugs, cash, and arms are seized. The cartels are on the defensive, the government shows no signs of letting up, and coordination between Mexico and the United States on drug and security-related issues has improved dramatically.
But there are negative results, as well. Fragmentation of the leadership of the cartels has only increased the likelihood of deadly conflict within and among these organizations. Surviving traffickers try to ward off municipal and state cooperation with federal security efforts, increasing the likelihood of assassination of local officials. And with steady demand for narcotics in the United States and demand on the rise in Mexico, surviving and new trafficking groups will compete to fill any voids in the drug supply chain left by other groups.
More broadly, the political consensus in Mexico in support of the Calderon administration's tough approach to drug violence is weakening. The security issues were a plus for the president and his National Action Party (PAN) during his first two years in office, but that's no longer the case. This provides the opposition Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which controls a majority of state and municipal governments, with incentives to push back against the federal government's efforts to consolidate weak, inefficient, and compromised municipal police forces.
In 2011, four patterns are likely to surface. First, violence will remain high. Second, the security threat to public officials, especially at the local level, will increase. Random acts against domestic and foreign businesses and even U.S. government assets, while a lesser concern, will also present risks. Third, the violence will remain largely concentrated along Mexico's northern border and in west coast states. Finally, ongoing Mexican and U.S. efforts against the cartels, especially in the border region, will make transportation to the United States increasingly difficult. As a result, traffickers will seek to develop local distribution networks. This will keep violence high in large, wealthier cities like Guadalajara and Mexico City, and increase cartel activity in tourist destinations like Acapulco and Cancun.
In the medium to long term, the Mexican government's counter-narcotics strategy -- mixing police and military operations with institutional reforms -- will yield more progress. But in the meantime, we're likely to see a lot more violence in 2011. The downside impact on Mexico's economy, particularly on the tourism sector, will continue.
On Friday, we'll discuss our final Top Risk for this year -- the risk that a wave of money flooding into emerging markets will include bad bets on a half dozen countries where investor confidence may well be misplaced.
Ian Bremmer is president of Eurasia Group. David Gordon is the firm's head of research.
By Ian Bremmer
"There is no reason why these things, as tragic as they are, should affect the safety of fans or players at the World Cup," said Lawrence Schlemmer, vice president of the South African Institute of Race Relations, on Monday. On the surface, Mr. Schlemmer is right. There is no reason why the murder last weekend in South Africa of white supremacist leader Eugene Terreblanche, allegedly by two young black men who worked on his farm, should have any effect on the upcoming FIFA World Cup, the first on African soil.
Unfortunately, he's simply responding to the fears sparked by comments like these:
"We're going to warn those nations, 'You are sending your soccer teams to a land of murder," said Andre Visagie, General Secretary of the AWB, the political party Terreblanche helped establish, first to defend apartheid and then to create a whites-only homeland within South Africa. "Don't do that if you don't have sufficient protection for them, Visagie added." After calling the killing a "declaration of war" by blacks against whites in the country, the AWB has since toned down its rhetoric and joined with the government in calling for calm.
The mother of one of the suspects blames the killing on frustration and anger over unpaid wages. Terreblanche's political allies blame a man called Julius Malema, president of the Youth League of the ruling African National Congress, for inciting black South Africans by singing an apartheid-era resistance song that calls on members to "shoot the Boer," a reference to white farmers of Dutch descent that has become a term of derision in some quarters for all white South Africans. A South African court has since banned the song under hate speech laws.
Under normal circumstances, it's a stretch to claim that a song can provoke murder or that a murder can disrupt the World Cup. But if the country is on edge, it's in part because violent crime remains a serious problem. Murder rates have fallen in recent years, but the perception remains that South Africa is a dangerous place. Even after passions have cooled, the murder will feed a growing perception in South Africa that government policies have failed to economically empower black citizens, to alleviate poverty, and to create jobs. Local corruption remains a chronic problem.
The real bad news for the country will come if this single headline-grabbing act of violence speeds an exodus of white South Africans. Just as the decision by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to fire striking oil workers from the country's state-owned oil company sent some of the most talented and experienced engineers to work in Canada's oil industry, so a significant number of white South Africans, fearful of the future or merely searching for a more promising economic climate, have found their way to Australia, the U.K., Canada and elsewhere.
There is now some real risk of racial unrest before the World Cup, which has had an overwhelmingly positive impact on the country's sense of unity and national pride. The larger risk is that any spike in violence will add to the perception, at home and abroad, that things aren't getting any better for most South Africans, black or white. There remain good reasons to be positive about the country's role in rapid African economic development. But the weekend's events could, reasonably or not, create trouble in days and years to come.
Ian Bremmer is president of Eurasia Group and author of The End of the Free Market: Who Wins the War Between States and Corporations? (Portfolio, May 2010)
ALEXANDER JOE/AFP/Getty Images
By Allyson Benton
The drive-by murders of a U.S. consulate employee, her husband, and the Mexican husband of another employee in the Mexican border town of Ciudad Juarez this weekend have pushed Mexico's drug violence back into the American media spotlight. Even before these shootings, a spike in deadly violence linked to the Mexican government's campaign against drug cartels has provoked charges that President Felipe Calderon has started a war his government can't win.
The problem is a serious one for Mexico's security, its politics, and its people. But it's important to put this violence in perspective.
Rates of violent crime are on the rise in Mexico, but they remain lower than in the not-so-distant past -- and lower than today's violence in other Latin American countries of comparable size and wealth.
First, Mexico's murder rate has fallen sharply from a decade ago. The National Public Security System reports that in 2008, the most recent year with available data, 12 people per 100,000 were the victims of murder. In 1997, the number was 17. In the late 1980s, the murder rate hovered near 20, according to the National Statistics and Geographic Institute.
Second, drug-related murders are focused almost entirely in the northern and western states where cartel activity is concentrated. Murder rates among citizens not involved in the drug trade continue to decline.
Finally, here's a bit of regional perspective. Mexico's 2008 murder rate of 12 per 100,000 is less than half the most recent (2006) reported rates for Brazil (25). Colombia's murder rate has fallen dramatically thanks to President Alvaro Uribe's investment in security, but in 2009 the rate was still at 35. In Venezuela in 2008, the murder rate reached 58, a number that appears to be rising. Only Argentina, with 5.3 murders per 100,000 people in 2007, suffers from less deadly violence among the wealthier Latin American countries. The FBI puts the US murder rate at 5.4.
Foreign investors and business people also fear the risk of kidnapping in Mexico. Here again, the numbers put the problem in context. Kidnappings in Mexico have fallen from 1.1 per 100,000 people in 1997 to 0.8 in 2008 -- though the number may be increasing again. As for the regional comparison, though reliable data is hard to come by given that some victims choose not to report it, kidnapping rates in Venezuela have increased dramatically in recent years to an estimated 2.4 per 100,000 people. Colombia's rate has declined dramatically in recent years, from a high of 8.9 in 2000 to just 0.5 in 2009.
Violent crime, particularly involving the drug trade, is a serious problem for Mexico and the country's people. But context is crucial for issues so easily sensationalized.
Allyson Benton is a Latin America analyst at Eurasia Group.
Jesus Alcazar/AFP/Getty Images
By Kim Iskyan
There's a reason for the popular perception that Russians like their drink: The average Russian citizen consumes 18 liters of pure alcohol per year, compared with about 11 liters per year in Western Europe. But if President Dmitry Medvedev's new anti-drinking campaign is a success, Russians will be toasting a lot less often.
Russian history is littered with failed attempts by imperious leaders with a social engineering streak to interfere in Russians' tippling habits. The most recent effort, the mid-1980s anti-drinking campaign spearheaded by Mikhail Gorbachev, was abandoned in part because it was hugely unpopular.
But the Kremlin has good reason to try again. Russia's drinking problem, which Medvedev has called a "national disaster," has long been cited as a key cause of Russia's ongoing demographic collapse. Alcohol abuse is a key reason why Russian men have a life expectancy of just 60 years, on par with North Korea and Papua New Guinea. In no small part due to alcohol abuse, the U.N. forecasts that Russia's population will fall from the current 142 million to 131 million by 2025, endangering economic growth and national security over the long term.
Medvedev has charged the government with developing an anti-drinking strategy by Dec. 1. Media reports suggest it may include new restrictions on advertising for alcoholic beverages; tightened regulations for low-alcohol content beverages; limitations on the times and locations at which alcoholic beverages can be sold; and price floors for and increased taxes on vodka. The plan will include additional measures to reduce Russia's gray alcohol market. The government is also contemplating whether to re-establish its monopoly on distilled spirits used to make vodka.
The campaign's chances of success may be better than previous Russian battles with the bottle. Some polls have suggested broad support for a temperance campaign. From a fiscal perspective, the relative contribution to the federal budget of alcohol taxation is a small fraction today of what it was during previous attempts to crack down on alcohol consumption, ensuring that lower consumption wouldn't dramatically decrease government revenue. It might even boost government coffers via higher taxes. Finally, the apparent success in the government's effort to eradicate legalized gambling -- as of July 1, all casinos and slot machine parlors operating outside four specified zones were closed -- reflects considerable political will to engineer positive social change, which could be channeled into an anti-alcohol effort.
Russia's anti-alcohol campaign is still in its very early stages. The politically powerful alcohol lobby, wary of higher taxes, could dilute the effort. And there are a lot more Russians drinking than gambling.
Kim Iskyan is a Europe and Eurasia analyst at Eurasia Group
ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images
by Ian Bremmer
In Afghanistan, even the good news isn't so good. The country managed to hold a presidential election in August, but there aren't many people inside or outside the country who considered it free and fair. It looks increasingly like Hamid Karzai will win without a second round, but his legitimacy will remain under a very large, very dark cloud. He'll face open revolt from Tajiks in the north, who overwhelmingly opposed his candidacy. And as evidenced by the significant recent expansion of terrorist bombings in Afghanistan's major cities and the assassination last week of the country's second-ranking intelligence officer, it will even become harder to secure Kabul. No one should have much confidence that a second round would do much to restore Karzai's credibility.
In addition, military operations against the Taliban inside Pakistan achieved some actual success this summer, but that has probably pushed some militants across the border into Afghanistan to harass coalition forces there. U.S. casualties have increased, though that's not surprising given the more aggressive operations of larger numbers of US troops. But last week's U.S. bombing on a Taliban target, which killed dozens of civilians, is just the latest in a series of setbacks for coalition military operations.
More worrisome: It's becoming increasingly clear that Afghanistan won't be able to stand on its own anytime soon. U.S. military officials report that the training of Afghan soldiers is well behind schedule. For the next two or three years, with coalition forces at their present levels, Afghan troops won't be nearly strong enough to maintain even the current level of security, let alone make any meaningful contribution to an aggressive counterinsurgency effort.
Afghanistan, more locals than ever
want the US
out, whatever the cost. There's also dwindling support for the war in the United
States, as the American media increasingly turns its
attention from an economy beginning to improve toward the growing death toll in
Within the Obama foreign-policy team, there looks to be a growing divergence of opinion on what to do next. There appears to be an internal consensus that the current strategy isn't working. But senior officials appear more divided on whether to "go long" or "go home." In the go long group, those who want more troops and more resources because "failure isn't an option," we see Secretary Clinton, envoy Richard Holbrooke, most of the generals on the ground, and most Republicans in Congress. In the go home camp, those who want to pull troops out before things get much worse, are Vice President Biden, most of Obama's political team, and a growing number of senior Democrats. Even Defense Secretary Robert Gates appears to have grown much more skeptical.
In short, Afghanistan is becoming Obama's first lasting foreign-policy crisis. A major terrorist attack somewhere in the world carried out by militants trained in Afghanistan could shift international public opinion toward greater engagement. Short of that, U.S. public opposition to the war will likely grow steadily over the coming year, bringing the issue to a head just in time for U.S. midterm elections and driving a wedge between members of the president's own party.
MANPREET ROMANA/AFP/Getty Images
By Eurasia Group analysts Allyson Benton and Patrick Esteruelas
As the Mexican government continues to face serious public security problems caused by the nation's drug cartels, fears are mounting that investors may lose confidence. In Mexico's current economic climate, where GDP could contract by as much as 8 percent in 2009, according to the OECD, any potential downward pressure on the economy sets off alarm bells.
Since he took office in 2006, President Felipe Calderon has pursued a twofold strategy against organized crime. The government has deployed the military to key drug trafficking regions in the north and along the west coast to root out cartels. It has also pushed important institutional reforms through congress to help make the country's police forces and judicial system more efficient. Nonetheless, the level of narcotrafficking violence has grown nearly threefold during Calderon's time in office, from an average of 2,195 deaths in 2006 and 2007 to an estimated 6,000 total deaths expected in 2009. In addition, drug traffickers appear to be moving into other illicit activities like extortion rackets and kidnapping rings, as the number of such reported crimes has risen dramatically in the past two years. These rising public security problems could suggest that Mexico is heading along the same path as Colombia, but there are some important distinctions to consider.
A few factors, in particular, make Mexico's state of affairs quite different from the situation in Colombia. First, the government still maintains control over its territory and has not ceded ground to narcotraffickers at any time. Second, although the fight against the cartels has resulted in higher rates of violence, the hostility remains largely contained in a few states and among narcotraffickers vying for improved positions within the cartels or between them. Third, Mexico's drug trafficking violence on a per capital basis remains significantly lower than Colombia's. Even after years of President Alvaro Uribe's successful hard-line security policy against Colombia's narcotraffickers, violence in this country remains quite high: There were a total of 16,000 reported homicides in 2008 in a country of 45 million people. In Mexico, in contrast, narcotrafficking related violence is expected to cause about 6,000 casualties in 2009, in a country of more than 100 million. Fourth, Mexico's narcotraffickers have not targeted civilians in order to support a campaign of fear against the government, even if they do continue to target public officials specifically involved in the fight against them.
In Colombia, in contrast, the nation's narcotraffickers embarked on a public fear campaign that targeted civilians and political elites, even if they had little to do with narcotrafficking or the fight against it. Finally, and most important, Mexico's narcotraffickers have no unifying political agenda. In contrast, Colombia's narcotraffickers -- in particular, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) -- originated out of a drive to see their left-leaning interests represented in the nation's political and party system, and they still claim to have such political aims. A unifying political agenda, however tenuous, helps reinforce the structural integrity and thus durability of groups when under pressure from the government.
In the end, the stark contrasts between Mexico and Colombia explain why investor confidence in Mexico does not appear to have waned as a result of the country's public security woes. As long as President Calderon stays firm in his stance against organized crime, investors will continue to base their judgments about Mexico on the government's capacity to push through badly needed fiscal and economic reforms rather than the level of narcotrafficking violence.
FERNANDO CASTILLO/AFP/Getty Images
By Eurasia Group analyst Philippe de Pontet
Last week's standoff between a handful of pirates and the U.S. Fifth Fleet had threatened to become a full-blown foreign-policy crisis before the dramatic rescue of Captain Richard Phillips gave President Obama a clear political win. Pirates are now less likely to target U.S. ships, but the White House is well aware that this episode won't do much to deter piracy elsewhere in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean.
Just hours after Phillips's rescue, Somalia made headlines again. On Monday, Islamist insurgents in Mogadishu launched a mortar attack on a plane carrying Congressman Donald Payne (D-NJ), underscoring the multifaceted threats posed by state failure in that country. Piracy is one symptom of the problem; Islamic extremism is another. The attack by al-Shabaab fighters within 24 hours of the end of the piracy incident ensures that Somalia will remain on the Obama administration's front-burner -- and that the White House will face growing pressure to "get tough" on militants and pirates who use the failed state as a safe haven.
So, flush with its success and aware that the larger problem has not been solved, will the Obama administration up the ante by targeting pirates onshore in Somalia?
Probably not. It will likely focus instead on near-term efforts to bolster multilateral naval patrols (with more aggressive tactics) in the waters where pirates have attacked in the recent past, because the probable costs of onshore strikes would outweigh the likely benefits.
First, a direct, onshore U.S. strike on pirates would have only a limited impact on the broader piracy problem. Second, it could undermine efforts to contain Islamist militants by inviting them to tap into wounded Somali national pride, one of a very few forces that can unite divided clans. (Somali nationalism provided the Islamist movement with early legitimacy in the struggle to expel U.S.-backed Ethiopian troops from the country.) Third, it would weaken transitional President (and moderate Islamist) Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, a potential force for stability in a country that badly needs it.
African and Gulf
governments and U.S. counter-terrorism officials are well aware that strikes
could drive extremism in the region and help militants recruit local youth. But
there's another risk: Pirates in Puntland, a region in Somalia's northeast
where most of the pirates are based, have already threatened to kill some of
the 270 hostages they now hold-hostages from countries all over the world, some
of them key U.S. allies.
Targeted attacks remain under consideration. The UN Security Council approved a resolution late last year that would allow targeted military action against pirates on Somali territory. But for now, the Obama administration will likely opt for a lower-risk approach that keeps the focus offshore, while reviewing policy options and deepening intelligence on Somalia.
The pirates have now attacked enough private and commercial vessels to create a sense of vulnerability and frustration within many governments around the world. Washington will try to use this opportunity to ramp up multilateral patrolling operations in the Gulf of Aden, while giving U.S. warships greater latitude to launch offensive action against pirates at sea-including on identified "mother ships."
This policy carries risks of its own, including the creeping militarization of the Gulf of Aden and the waters of the Indian Ocean further from Somalia's shores. But this option will offer both security and political benefits while limiting the risk that another U.S. administration hits the rocks that lie just beneath Somalia's troubled waters.
STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN/AFP/Getty Images
The Call, from Ian Bremmer, uses cutting-edge political science to predict the political future -- and how it will shape the global economy.