Ameripol comes to life

(International Relations and Security Network, 26/11/2007)


Latin America's first regional police force is now on its way to becoming a reality thanks to a number of accords signed by 18 countries on 14 November in Bogotá, Colombia, breathing life into a potentially promising but shaky new institution, Ameripol.


This vast new regional police force will face a number of challenges to become truly effective. Still, many see it a as significant step toward higher standards of professionalism and accountability in a region where many countries count on the military to perform public security functions that in most cases should be reserved for the police.


Ameripol's primary function will be to draw upon police resources at a regional level to combat the transnational criminal elements that operate in two or more countries between Argentina and Canada - along a vast trail from supply to market in the Western Hemisphere.


While police in Colombia may work closely with police in Mexico or Brazil, they may have relative little communication with police in Haiti or Uruguay. Police in Jamaica may have little contact with police in Brazil. Yet criminal elements in all these countries, in one way or another, are likely in constant communication to assist with a number of tasks including drug transport and storage, money laundering or simply to find a place to hide.

Transnational crime

According to the charter agreement, obtained by ISN Security Watch from Ameripol's presidential office in Santiago, Chile, the organization defines a "transnational crime" as that which is "committed in more than one nation-state; committed in one nation-state where a substantial portion of planning, organization or control was conducted in a second state; committed in one nation-state by an organized criminal group that conducts criminal activities in a second nation-state; and committed in one nation-state but has significant effect on a second nation-state."


The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) is considered one of the region's most active transnational criminal groups. As a drug trafficking organization, FARC supplies Mexican, Guatemalan, Venezuelan, Brazilian and other networks with the cocaine they need to meet demand in the markets they serve.


Brazilian criminals work with coca paste suppliers in Peru and Bolivia, gun suppliers in Paraguay and Argentina and money launders in the tri-border region between Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil. Peru's Sendero Luminoso network, once known as a tough Maoist group, is now believed to work as the guard detail and muscle for organized criminal groups operating in Peru to grow coca leaves and opium poppies.


The Suri-Cartel, formed between criminals in Colombia, Suriname and Brazil, inaugurated a guns-for-cocaine bartering system in the 1990s using Surinamese and Brazilian guns, Brazilian planes and pilots, FARC-supplied cocaine and Surinamese connections in the Netherlands to sell hundreds of kilos of cocaine to the European market.


There are dozens more examples of transnational criminal groups working together to combine regional resources, avoid detection and boosts their businesses. Until now, there was a relatively limited level of regional cooperation on the law enforcement end. Apart from Interpol, the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and some bilateral cooperation between national police, a regional police resource was lacking and sorely needed.

Strengths and weaknesses

Latin American militaries have been used countless times to handle the work most perceive as the purview of police forces.


"Militaries are [not] an appropriate or effective institution for confronting transnational crime," Joy Olson, director of the human rights group Washington Office on Latin America, told ISN Security Watch, adding that "you can send the military to quell violence for a time, but ultimately you have to be able to arrest and prosecute criminals, and it is the police and judiciary who hold those responsibilities."


Ameripol, as a regional initiative, takes a step in the direction of strengthening police forces in member countries. There is potential for a higher level of accountability, and with the participation of highly professional police forces such as those in Chile and Colombia, the possibility for technology transfer, especially in the area of forensics and the judicial process, is promising.


Ameripol also offers a regional point of interaction for other transnational organizations such as Interpol, the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), the Organization of American States (OAS) and the UN. Rather than taking the time to interact with individual police forces to gather information on the various elements of one transnational criminal group such as FARC, the DEA or Interpol, theoretically, could go to one point of contact for information coming in from across the region.


Sharing this information, however, is entirely voluntary. Due to the rigor of sovereignty in the region, some argue there is little regional initiative can do to work against national self-interest.

"[A] compartmentalized approach to issues and sensitivity to information sharing, make it unlikely that much in the way of useful tactical information will ever find its way to Ameripol," Ian M Cuthbertson, director of the New York-based Counter-Terrorism Project with the World Policy Institute, told ISN Security Watch.


While it is entirely beneficial to share some information, there might be a significant amount of intelligence that could be tagged as necessary to keep secret for national security and thus rendered untouchable for regional use, even if the information is important for a specific investigation conducted by a member nation.


The only way to get around such sensitive issues is perhaps through personal bonds and relationships. Ameripol does provide an avenue for the inception and growth of such relationships, but it may be some time before they can take root and begin to bear fruit.

What the future holds

The success of Ameripol will likely be based less on the functionality of the organization as a whole and more on the individual relationships that through random phone calls and e-mails or ad-hoc meetings tie the network of professional policemen together.


To date, the region has shown an incredible ability to interdict increasingly larger drug shipments. Since 2005, interdictions have grown significantly from three, four and five tonnes to a recent seizure of over 20 tonnes of cocaine in Mexico. Yet such high numbers of interdiction suggest an increase in the amount of cocaine - or any product - that is trafficked, according to a widely held belief that interdictions represent only a fraction of what is actually transported.


With an initial membership of 18 countries (Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica, Mexico, Paraguay, Perú, Dominican Republic and Uruguay), Ameripol has ample regional coverage. Yet it is worrying that Venezuela, quickly evolving into the region's latest playground for organized crime, is not on the membership list.


Just as disconcerting is the absence of Trinidad and Tobago, considered a major gun trafficking link between the Americas and Africa, and St Marteen, a hotspot for organized criminal activity in the Caribbean. The future inclusion of these countries will certainly help to add strength to the network, even if concerns for corruption, especially in Venezuela, diminish the good will necessary to share actionable intelligence.

Put to the test

Already, Ameripol has been put to the test.


On 5 November, one Nicaraguan, two Colombian and three Honduran drug traffickers escaped from prison in Nicaragua. According to local reports, two Nicaraguan police assisted with the escape. With fugitives from two different countries on the loose in a third country, where corruption facilitated escape, this case is a perfect example of the necessity of Latin American police cooperation at a regional level. This case is also exemplary of the challenges, namely corruption, that Ameripol faces as it moves ahead.


In a region where political will to involve military elements in a case such as the Nicaraguan jailbreak is at times greater than the will to support the police in their investigation, it is reassuring for many that Ameripol stands next to military involvement as another option. Moving forward, it will be up to Ameripol to live up to its mandate. Given the amount of transnational organized crime in Latin America, there will be vast opportunity for Ameripol to prove itself, or die trying.