Security and the other Tri-Border

(International Relations and Security Network 24/7/2008)


The US' preoccupation with terrorism, combined with a large Lebanese community in Ciudad de Este, Paraguay, located in the in the eastern part of the country, has forced a high level of international scrutiny on the tri-border region between Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina. This has turned many eyes away from other areas in South America that, some argue, should receive just as much if not more attention.


The tri-border area between Colombia, Brazil and Peru is one such region. The twin towns of Tabatinga, Brazil and Leticia, Peru have long been havens for smuggling cocaine south into Brazil and guns north into Colombia. It was near this area that Luis Fernando da Costa, the renowned Brazilian smuggler, first made his guns-for-cocaine barter with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).


Da Costa and his FARC counterparts took advantage of the Amazon river's upper fluvial system to transport heavy cargo in an area virtually unpatrolled, making the down river city of Manaus one of the least talked about black market centers in South America.


Today, the actors have changed but the business has not. Northeast of Leticia, the Ica and Solimoes rivers have long been used as illicit highways. Only as recently as March of this year has Brazil decided to move to stymie smuggling in this area, announcing plans to install a federal police post between the two rivers near the Colombian border.


On the heels of this announcement, Brazilian President Luis Inacio "Lula" da Silva has reached out to his Colombian counterpart to iron out a series of bilateral economic and military agreements that among other accords will facilitate the information sharing necessary for Colombia to take advantage of any intelligence gathered by the men and women posted at Brazil's latest Amazonian base.


Overtures of broader security implications for the region, however, went deeper than the landmark agreement to combat narco-trafficking in the Amazon.


A meeting of minds


On 20 July, Lula met with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe and Peruvian President Alan Garcia in Leticia to discuss issues revolving around regional security and the presence of a heavy flow of drugs and guns through one of the region's many tri-border areas.


According to the joint communiqué, the leaders discussed "bilateral cooperation in the fight against organized crime, the trafficking of weapons and ammunition, the global drug problem and its related crimes.


"The agreement makes good sense for both Colombia and Brazil," Michael Shifter, vice president for policy at the Inter-American Dialogue told ISN Security Watch.


"The two countries have a common interest in trying to reduce illicit trafficking and contain violent groups. Enhanced military cooperation is a positive step forward that serves the national security interests of both governments. That is its principal purpose," he added.


Considering that Colombia is the world's number one supplier of cocaine, and Brazil is number two in the world for cocaine demand and a major transit county between South America, Africa and Europe, such cooperation is considered fundamental.


"This deal is good news for the Colombian authorities because for the FARC, Brazil has become a major overseas location for drugs-for-arms deals," Andy Webb-Vidal, a Bogota-based independent security analyst and Jane's Information Group correspondent told ISN Security Watch.


A memorandum of understanding on arms trafficking was also signed. Entitled, "Memorandum of Understanding for Cooperation in the Fight Against the Manufacture and Illicit Trafficking of Firearms, Ammunition, Accessories, Explosives, and Other Related Materials," the name suggests a bloated amount of rhetoric with little substance. But it is no secret that a large number of illegal weapons circulating in the region were made in Brazil.


Any understanding between Colombia and Brazil has been welcomed in the latter as an excellent start and an important step forward in the continuation of Brazil's ongoing efforts to secure its borders.


"In May the governments of Bolivia and Brazil announced that they would deploy additional federal police to the border along the northern Bolivian department of Pando amid escalating drug-related violence," Toby Friedl, a long time security and risk analyst in Latin America, told ISN Security Watch.


The Pando region of Bolivia is just south of the Leticia-Tabatinga tri-border area.


"According to Brazilian Minister of Defense Nelson Jobim, criminal groups from both countries are using this border area to smuggle illicit products from Colombia and Peru and then ship them on to Europe and Africa," Friedl added.


Sidelining Correa and Chavez?


Beyond agreements to share information to assist one another with the movements of black market activity in the region, Brazil and Colombia have drawn closer at the military level.


Under the auspices of this new agreement, Brazil will soon enjoy a boost in military equipment sales to Colombia and Peru, deepening its ties with these two neighbors while isolating, some argue, Ecuador and Venezuela.


According to Latinnews Daily, this meeting "underlined how isolated President Rafael Correa of Ecuador will find himself if he persists with his police of shunning Uribe […]."


"By sealing a military and intelligence-sharing agreement with Colombia, Lula is acknowledging that the winner in the diplomatic battle between Bogota and Caracas was won by Colombia," Webb-Vidal argued, adding, "by doing this, Lula implicitly distances himself from Chavez."


Earlier this year, Uribe rejected Chavez's request for Colombia to join the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR). But now Uribe has embraced the idea when he was asked by Lula.

"What better way of rebuffing Chavez? " Webb-Vidal said.


Yet any intention Lula might have had to isolate Correa or Chavez should be considered ancillary, according to Shifter.


"This should be viewed only secondarily as posturing on the regional stage to offset Chavez's ambitions and influence," Shifter argued, adding, "it is noteworthy that the agreement involves the hard-line president Uribe and the leftist Lula.


"Once again, pragmatic considerations and practical realities have trumped any ideological factors," Shifter said.


"What's interesting about this unprecedented formality of cooperation is that it's happening at a time when Brazil has a popular president of the left and Colombia a popular president of the right," echoed Adam Isacson, director of programs with the Center for International Policy.


"The odd man out here is Hugo Chavez, Venezuela's ever-less-popular president of the left, who has not shown interest in border security cooperation," he added.


UNASUR and Brazilian leadership


When 12 South American countries met in Brasilia some two months ago to discuss the formation of UNASUR, one noted absence from the formation of the organization's Security Defense Council (SDC) was Colombia. The country's participation was seen as fundamental as one of the region's leaders in military efficacy and professionalization, due to its long fight against FARC and, in part, Plan Colombia.


Colombia's absence was seen as a major loss, contributing to a perceived failure on the part of Brazil to formulate a strong SDC. It was a black mark on the potency of UNASUR as a whole. Yet many agreed that Uribe would not be part of something that involved Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who many consider a destabilizing force in the region, especially in the Andes.


Since the meeting in Leticia, however, Uribe has announced Colombia's full participation in the SDC, reversing many analysts' claims that the the Council was doomed to fail. Colombia's wary entrance, however, has only occurred with some coaxing from Lula, who sees the SDC as a way to promote security along Brazil's borders, touching 10 other South American nations.


Uribe also secured from Lula a promise for increased Brazilian foreign direct investment in Colombia, including help with important infrastructure projects. He was also assured that decision making at the SDC would be based on consensus.


"This is the latest in a series of recent Brazilian foreign policy and defense cooperation initiatives, most notably UNASUR, showing an apparent Brazilian desire to play a more active regional leadership role, including - for the first time in memory - in the Andean region. It is happening at a time when Chavez's regional leadership role is noticeably fading," Isacson said.