Sep 1 2012

Radicals, Terrorists and Traffickers–Oh My

Creating a potpourri of enemies south of the border

Hugo Chavez

Hugo Chavez

In May, a New York Times story (5/6/12) discussed plans to militarize the U.S. presence in Latin America. For some, this might sound redundant, given U.S. history in the region. Others might be struck by the notion that a nation embroiled in two major wars–and threatening to start another–could find the resources to escalate efforts south of its border.

The article, which focused on U.S. efforts to strengthen its anti-drug campaign in Honduras, provided a glimpse of the evolution of the U.S. military’s role in the world as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq wind down. That role, the Times explains, is to “confront emerging threats” while it “draws on hard lessons learned from a decade of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

For many Americans, important “lessons learned” have been that wars kill untold civilians and soldiers, strain the domestic economy and serve as a recruiting program for actual enemies. Unfortunately, such insights into the wisdom of staying out of the affairs of other nations were not included in the article, which quoted five people, four of whom promoted the U.S. agenda: two U.S. military officials, one Honduran officer and the U.S. ambassador to Honduras.

What was included instead was a slippery definition of the “enemy” familiar to those who follow nations’ efforts to legitimize military escalation: As the Times put it, the targets may be “insurgents, terrorists or criminal groups that threaten American interests.” Or, better yet, all three combined.

In the Times, Col. Ross Brown, commander of the ‘military’s efforts across all of Central American,” justified the funneling of U.S. military personnel and resources to the region through a theory of a “potential nexus between transnational organized criminals and terrorists who would do harm to our country.” That bears a striking resemblance to Army Chief of Staff Ray Odierno’s response on CBS (6/15/12) when Charlie Rose asked him who the U.S.’s  enemies were:

Well, that’s the thing…It could be a state, it could be a nation-state, it could be insurgents, it could be nonstate actors, it could be terrorists, it could be a combination of all of those, frankly. I could come up with several scenarios where you’d have all of those involved. So it’s about the complexity of the world we live in and it’s translating into potential future military operations that we might have to conduct.

Neither CBS nor the Times offered any sort of scrutiny of such an open-ended policy. In fact, the Times piece only offered one point of quasi-critical context regarding the historical role of the U.S. in Latin America, mentioning “Washington’s messy history in Honduras, which was the base for the secret operation once run by Oliver North to funnel money and arms to rebels fighting in neighboring Nicaragua.” After this brief allusion to U.S. support for the infamous cocaine-trafficking Contras (Extra!, 1-2/97), the unironically referred to “skeptics” who “worry that the American military might accidentally empower thuggish elements of local security forces.”–as if any future empowering of violent forces would be “accidental.”

Apparently the fact that the U.S.’s War on Drugs now includes as a partner a Honduran regime brought to power by the overthrow of an elected president does not invite deeper analysis. There’s no discussion of a military coup that the U.S. refused to describe as such so as not to trigger cuts in aid (Huffington Post, 11/29/10)—aid that now seems to increasingly take the form of military equipment, personnel and DEA agents.

In Honduras, concerns of human rights observers and civilians caught up in the drug wars are drowned out (Nation, 6/11/12; Extra!, 7/12) while connections between terrorism, drug trafficking and disfavored governments are emphasized—and sometimes invented—by both U.S. officials and U.S. media, in an apparent effort to legitimize and escalate a U.S. military role in the region.

The suggestion that terror, drugs and hostile states form one big hodgepodge of enemies has legal as well as rhetorical value to the U.S. military. The Authorization for Use of Military Force signed into law on September 18, 2001, declares that “the president has authority under the Constitution to take action to deter and prevent acts of international terrorism against the United States”—language so broad as to provide basically a blank check for any military activity that can be depicted as “counterterrorism.”

Thus the incentive to tie official enemies to terrorism—and to tie both to smuggling operations, so as to further militarize an already none-too-metaphorical War on Drugs.

So far, the most obvious target of this strategy has been Venezuelan president and perennial U.S. enemy Hugo Chavez, who has been repeatedly accused of harboring Hezbollah (Reuters, 7/21/09) and whose relationship with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has the media asking if they are “partners in terrorism” (Fox News, 10/5/11). Chavez’s visits to Iran had the right-wing Weekly Standard (10/19/10) discerning an “alliance that features not only nuclear cooperation and energy resources, but also conventional arms and terrorism.” Meanwhile, Chavez associates were accused of ties to drug traffickers (Fox News Latino, 4/4/11) in a scandal that brought back memories of Manuel Noriega for some (Chicago Tribune, 5/29/12).

Rafael Correa--Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Presidencia de la Republica del Ecuador

Rafael Correa–Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Presidencia de la Republica del Ecuador

Chavez and Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa, two of the region’s most visible leftist leaders, were both alleged to have ties to the FARC Colombian rebel group. Categorized by the U.S. State Department as a “narco-terrorist group,” FARC was supposedly funded by Chavez to the tune of $300 million, and in return had been enlisted to assassinate Chavez’s political foes—according to computer files supposedly found in the jungles of Ecuador after a Colombian military raid into the area (New York Times, 5/10/11; NBC News, 3/3/08).

Unfortunately for the Times, as well as for U.S. and Colombian authorities who pointed to the files as evidence of Chavez’s complicity in aiding and funding “narco-terrorism,” the Colombian Supreme Court found the files inadmissible as evidence (Colombia Reports, 5/18/12), since the “validity of the content of what was found on the computers can also not be verified, as the alleged emails were copied into Word documents without indication of sender or receiver.”

Mexico, another Latin American country with drug-trafficking woes and U.S. support, was the focus of coverage that was able to tie terrorism, drugs and unauthorized immigration all into one mega story. Fox News made a specialty of this, reporting (5/26/10) on Department of Homeland memos that warned of “evidence of a porous and unsecured border being exploited by groups intent on wreaking deadly havoc on American soil.”

A special report by Fox (2/21/11) treated Hezbollah’s presence in Argentina, Brazil and Venezuela as proven fact, pointing to Fox’s own coverage as evidence. The narrative continued with “terrorists” then heading north into Mexico, with Rep. Connie Mack (R.-Florida) asking:

When the terrorists come into Latin America, when they move into Mexico, how many have come into the United States? Our government doesn’t know the answer to that question. That should make all of us very fearful.

A spectacular story in October 2011 that had Iran plotting a Hollywood-style assassination of Saudi Arabia’s U.S. ambassador with the help of Mexican drug cartels seemed to vindicate those fears (ABC News, 10/11/11). Mainstream Western media couldn’t quite bring themselves to question the validity of such claims (Extra!, 3/12). Instead of questioning if the plot was true, they resorted to questioning why Iran would risk such a “bizarre” move (New York Times, 10/11/11), quoting an anonymous “senior law enforcement official” who posited: “It’s a rogue plan or they’re using very different tactics. We just don’t know.”

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton perhaps best expressed the tricky business of marrying the farfetchedness of the claims with unwavering conviction:

“The idea that they would attempt to go to a Mexican drug cartel to solicit murder-for-hire to kill the Saudi ambassador, nobody could make that up, right?” she asked, also saying that the plot “crosses a line that Iran needs to be held to account for.”

More recently (and alarmingly), Fox’s Latino audience (Fox News Latino, 3/30/12) was treated to Joint Chiefs of Staff chair Martin Dempsey’s apocalyptic fear that elements in South America “one day could be used to move far more dangerous things, like weapons of mass destruction, across the southern U.S. border.”

With media coverage so eager to justify our worst fears, as well as the military’s agenda, it might make a new, rebranded drug war the next budget-busting, time-consuming fight for the next generation. But haven’t we already had a War on Drugs? Originally launched by Richard Nixon in 1971, the war’s unwinnability—and thus its endless extendability—may link it to the War on Terror more than any alleged links between drug cartels and terrorists. Salon’s Glenn Greenwald (10/14/10) describes both U.S. efforts as mirror images of each other that look “to keep the population in a state of heightened fear and thus blind them to rational discourse.”

While Fox’s agenda and hysteria can be expected, the role of the New York Times is more subtle. Whereas right-wing outlets will openly clamor for military escalation, the Times can simply gloss over the question of escalation—until after it’s already begun—and then offer rationalizations.

In another New York Times piece on Honduras (5/16/12) that ran a few days after a controversial and fatal civilian shooting involving DEA agents on May 11, readers were reminded of the mission of the U.S. in Honduras:

But the murky circumstances surrounding the firefights underscore the potential successes and risks in the United States’ escalating efforts to help small Central American governments battle well-armed and financed transnational narcotics smugglers by adapting counterinsurgency techniques honed in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. The challenge has been to help bolster local security forces without raising a nationalist backlash fueled by memories of interventions by the United States during the Cold War.

Where some might view the lives of Hondurans or the sovereignty of their nation as the most important things at risk in the U.S. campaign, for the Times it’s the dreaded “nationalist backlash”—and fears (11/6/11) that an American death might get the DEA “mired in Congressional oversight hearings.”

Given such concerns, it isn’t hard to imagine unmanned drones flying over South American skies in the near future. (They already fly over Mexico—Washington Post, 3/16/11.) Air Force chief of staff Gen. Norton Schwartz can certainly imagine it. He recently said in an interview that drones may be heading south to serve “previously underserved” regions, like South America (Wired, 6/12/12).

“Underserved”? No one likes to be left out. Or, as one observer noted, the proliferation of drones into the sovereign skies of Latin America may be part of a bureaucratic effort at “making sure the system doesn’t get pigeonholed as being just for Afghanistan or Iraq.”

With media outlets ranging from the New York Times to Fox providing U.S. authorities an unchallenged platform in making connections between drugs and terrorists, Latin America and jihad, drones and other military efforts need not worry about being overly restrained.