Ungoverned Spaces in the Americas, Part I

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Southern Pulse examines those areas of Latin America where there is no state presence, and transnational criminal organizations are able to thrive.

Despite years of effort to extend sovereignty to borders, ungoverned spaces in Latin America continue to grow in size and, for transnational criminal organizations (TCOs), importance. These spaces, also referred to as “geopolitical black holes” or “stateless zones,” exist in cities and across vast stretches of territory. TCOs thrive in these spaces, and once entrenched are very hard to remove. In this first part of a series on ungoverned spaces in Latin America, we will review specific ungoverned spaces in Mexico, Central and South America. In future reports, we will explore these spaces in cities across the Americas, specific zones where we expect new ungoverned spaces to open, and, finally, how the existence of these spaces facilitates black markets and terrorist organizations.

There is no doubt among even the closest observers that rival TCOs will drive violence well beyond the July 2012 presidential elections in Mexico. Meanwhile, local politics in the towns and villages along the US-Mexico border in Tamaulipas, known as the “frontera chica,” are in many ways much more complex than federal elections. Trafficking corridors and the land that surrounds them in northeastern Mexico are some of the country’s most high profile ungoverned zones. The Sierra Madre Occidental mountain range is a rough patch of canyons, peaks, and ridges between the states of Sinaloa and Durango states, and is another well known, historical black hole. The third most salient piece of Mexico where the state has little presence is in the southeastern corner of Chiapas, and may be considered the tip of an iceberg that extends across most of the country of Guatemala.

Guatemala’s Peten department, stretching from west to east is geographically the farthest possible point from the geopolitical center of the country in Guatemala City. Distance is not necessarily a deciding factor, however. Neighboring departments Alta Verapaz and Baja Verapaz remain tightly in the control of Mexican TCOs, while the Caribbean department of Izabal, and another border department, Huehuetenango, all present challenges for the country’s leadership.

El Salvador’s Santa Ana and Calatenango departments represent a robust trafficking corridor from Honduras to Guatemala, and likely present the highest concentration of this country’s ungoverned spaces. Local trafficking groups including Los Perrones and the Cartel de Texis have infiltrated the local politics and police in this region. They actively undermine any attempt by the national civilian government to attempt to improve the governance.

Honduras, much like neighboring Guatemala and Nicaragua, presents vast lands with little to no government presence, with the Gracias a Dios department at the top of the list. Civilian authorities with the police, attorney general and development agencies in Honduras often require the assistance of the navy to travel to this region and must utilize military equipment and bases to operate. Beyond Gracias a Dios, central provinces including Olancho have more developed infrastructure, but still enough of a limited government presence that they have become important operating locations for TCOs.

The northern and southern autonomous regions of Nicaragua on the Atlantic coast are far removed from the population and governing centers of Managua and the Pacific Coast. The populations of these regions have never been close to the central government. They have a particular split with the current government as they were abused by the Ortega government in the 1980s. This has been a growth region for drug money as small time traffickers have been able to buy influence from the population that has been long neglected.

The oldest and perhaps least governed space in all the Americas continues to be the Darien Gap, located between Panama and Colombia. South America’s long-time focal point of organized criminal activity, Colombia, may have at one time looked much like Guatemala does today; eight years of an offensive against the FARC and other TCOs has recaptured much of the country’s land, though with limits. A horse-shoe shaped band of territory, beginning near the border with Panama, and extending south along the Pacific coast, the borders with Ecuador, Peru, and Brazil, and turning north to follow the border with Venezuela, presents more ungoverned territory than not. As mentioned in a previous report by Southern Pulse, plans by the Chinese government to build transportation infrastructure in this region will face critical challenges as the Darien Gap and northwest Colombia have minimal government presence to protect any infrastructure that would be needed.

Ungoverned territory in South America largely follows border zones between most countries. The Amazon departments of Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Brazil have, arguably, never enjoyed the state presence afforded for coastal zones. The tri-border areas formed where Brazil meets with Bolivia and Peru, Colombia and Peru, Colombia and Venezuela, and Venezuela and Guyana all present chronic areas of concern for the governments of all these countries. In many ways, they represent the future of smuggling corridors and other black market activity, even as the well-known Tri-Border Area (TBA) between Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay, with Ciudad del Este at the center, continues to throb with criminal activity.

This TBA is both ungoverned and heavily watched for being ungoverned. The region is known for being a “wild-west” style location with illicit trafficking, money laundering and a whole range of bad actors including the FARC, Hezbollah, and a speckling of Chinese, Russian, and African criminal organizations. However, in recent years, the three governments, particularly Brazil, have increased intelligence, surveillance and policing in the region. A significant amount of illegal activity still occurs along the triple border, and while it is no longer “ungoverned,” rotating policies used to bring governance to this area underscore the difficulty with cross-border cooperation required to extend sovereignty into the region’s geopolitical black holes.

Brazil, apart from Colombia, has perhaps spent the most time, political capital, and state funds to extend a presence across the vastness of its ungoverned territories. Federal Police programs such as Co-Bra, Pe-Bra, Ve-Bra, and others have all cycled through various states of funding and readiness. Agreements between Colombia and Brazil, granting the right of hot pursuit for a limited amount of air space into sovereign territory remain progressive. Brazil’s geographical position, with borders that touch 10 countries, three of them cocaine source countries, drives a political mandate to extend sovereignty, though the task remains massive.

Extending north, from the Brazilian state of Roraima, the country meets Venezuela and Guyana. Venezuela’s presence across most of the state may be counted as more robust than many of its counterparts, but its inability to provide security in spite of government presence has been a key point of failure for the Chavez government. The country presents an interesting twist on the definition of governance, however, as many observers consider the whole state to have been “captured” by criminal interests.

Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana all present unique problems. French Guiana remains, for all practical purposes, a department of France. Guyana maintains a close relationship with its former colonial power, the UK, but is financially and politically unable to control over 80 percent of its territory. Suriname is in the same situation, though likely more dire. The current president, Desi Bouterse, was once a military dictator heavily involved in the Suri-Cartel, which trafficked cocaine from Colombia to Holland in the mid-90s. He was convicted in absentia in Holland for drug trafficking in 1999.

At a glance, the entire region presents more ungoverned territories than one may expect. Collectively, governments across the region remain ineffective for extending presence, influence, and — most importantly — state services to a significant portion of the Americas. However, while the above mentioned spaces focus on large swaths of rural territory that has never had much official presence, a number of urban slums with high population densities can also be considered ungoverned or under the control of non-state actors. In the next installment, we will dig deeper into some of the chronic spots of insecurity inside several urban areas across the Americas.

Reprinted with permission from Southern Pulse — see original article here.

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