Category Archives: South America

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An Unknown Unit

This piece by W. Alejandro Sanchez is  part of our Future Military Fiction Week for the New Year. The week topic was chosen as a prize by one of our Kickstarter supporters.

Waking Up

Jesus, Maria y Jose, this heat is impossible,” I said at around 5am. The sun had yet show up in the dessert but it was hot enough. Well maybe not too hot, it was an acceptable 20 degrees Celsius (68 Fahrenheit to the uneducated) but you know, I was born in the Andes so I am not used to the heat. “Why couldn’t we start this war in the winter? Everyone would be miserable except me at least,” I said to whatever ghost still inhabited this abandoned room.

Then again, I was still mostly in my uniform: the standard desert-pattern cargo pants, my belt, socks. I was even wearing still those damn boots that, while resilient, made my feet hurt. It was common sense to sleep all dressed up in the battlefield, with your rifle next to you, in order to be ready if (or more like when) the enemy showed up.

With that said, I did make the executive decision to take off my jacket and t-shirt. I have never been able to sleep with a t-shirt on and it was the first time in like three weeks that we had been able to sleep with an actual roof on our heads.

A nice roof, mind you. “I wonder whose house this had been,” I had said, again out loud, when I camped here last night. Then again, I rather not know. I made sure I did not look at the pictures of this nice little two-story home in this mid-sized town that my unit had been sweeping the day before.

From what I could tell from the corner of my eye when I looked at the pictures as I walked by, this had been the home of a 7-person family. “The spoils of war,” I thought as I peeked through the window, pulling the curtain aside just a bit to see that, indeed, the only source of light from anywhere in the horizon came from the moon.

Prior to the war this town had been the home of some five thousand people. Now it was the home of at least five thousand stray dogs, cats and rats.

I bent over, which made my poor back crack. Carajo! I cursed and then grabbed my FN Herstal. I liked this rifle, my government had bought a few thousand of them from the Belgians a few years ago and it had paid off. It was a good weapon, light but the bullets packed a good punch.

It had taken me longer than I cared to admit to get used to it instead of the old-school FAL rifle that the army had used for generations. My father, uncle and other relatives had trained with it when they were soldiers and still joked about how the damn thing was taller than some recruits.

But the change to a younger, sleeker weapon had been worth it. This efficient little rifle was the cornerstone of why the army had been so successful in the first months of the war. Well that, some good strategy and a successful surprise attack that had taken the enemy, our perpetual southern neighbors, by surprise.

I drank a big gulp of water from my canteen and briefly considered following it with a gulp of pisco from my flask, nicely hidden in one of the inside pockets of my jacket, but decided against it. It wasn’t even 6am and I figured I should be fully sober for a couple of hours more.

I stood on the edge of the door for a moment, letting my eyes adjust to the darkness and then began walking downstairs. I could easily distinguish the shapes that constituted the other soldiers of my unit, part of the 13th Counterinsurgency Regiment.  We were a ragtag bunch, remnants from the original unit from when the war began plus new recruits. Not to mention the really green recruits and paramilitaries that had joined as time passed. In my early 30s, I was already regarded as a veteran simply because of having survived longer than most others around here.

I walked down the stairs, and only then proceeded to put on my t-shirt, Kevlar vest and jacket, enjoying the last moments of freedom from all that extra weight. Sergeant Juan Jose Gambini, mi Segundo, walked up to me, already in full uniform (did he sleep in that thing?). He gave me a sharp salute, with a broad grin. “Nothing to report, señor. The Western scouts came back a while ago, no sightings of rotos.”

Everyone has a nickname for the “enemy,” the Allies called the Germans the “gerries” and we called ours either “los rotos” or “los vecinos”.

“Vanessa must have been upset that she did not get to unleash Marta on anyone,” I said with a little mischievous smile.

“Correct señor, she was a bit grumpy, but you know her, she’s quite the optimist.”

At this point in the war, neither side could afford to stick to that old, silly, machista culture that Latin Americans are known for. Even though we were winning, we could not afford to keep our female soldiers serving “support” roles. We needed everyone who wanted to fight and could fight in the front lines.

Unsurprisingly there had been the standard sexist comments when female soldiers began fighting in the front lines. “Can they shoot?”; “What if they get hurt?”; “Can they carry all that equipment?”; and the ever-present “No necesitamos mujeres.” I am sad to say that not all in my unit had been as welcoming to female fighters as I had wished.

Nevertheless, the addition of a female component only increased our efficiency. Vanessa is a person mind you, but Marta is the name of M82A1 rifle that she used with deadly efficacy. That is not the rifle she was originally given at the start of the war, she had lost that one during the Battle of Tarapaca in an amusing hand-to-hand combat. She found Marta a few days ago and her new rifle already had five notches.

If nothing else, this war had proven that both genders could be just as deadly and effective in combat as the other.

Mi segundo left to wake up the rest of the troops as I walked throughout the rest of the house. I got on knees when I got to the kitchen and crawled my way out into the dark backyard and from there across to the neighboring also two-story house.

I believed Gambini when he told me that there were no enemy combatants in sight, but I was just as sure that the enemy probably had their own version of our 5 foot and 5 inches-Vanessa: a sniper in some roof just waiting as patiently as a hungry serpent for some silly officer to stick his head up just a centimeter too high over a fence.

Eventually I crawled the 30 meters, more or less, of backyard to the next house and entered through the kitchen. I could smell some rotting food on the table and I tried not to throw up. The smell of rotting food always got to me.

Lying on the ground by a hole in the wall was Corporal Humberto, holding, caressing one would say, his trustworthy ZH-05 grenade launcher. The launcher was Chinese and it had a wicked kick to it. It was also deadly effective.

Humberto held it securely but also with pride while he admired his work: some three hundred feet away lay the remains of a Leopard tank. Their enemy’s bought a couple hundred of those tanks years ago. This particular Goliath had been deployed here with around a dozen supporting troops to stop our forces from taking over the town.

It had been a difficult fight the night before but my unit had prevailed and we had Humberto, his grenade launcher, and two fallen comrades to thank for that. Vanessa had scratched Marta twice that night. The two had taken the tank’s gunner as well as a lieutenant who was hiding behind what looked like a Mercedes (that’s as far as my knowledge of cars goes). If the troops had any problems with having any female in our unit, these reservations died that night.

Funny how sexism and racism can evaporate in extreme circumstances if you show how much of a badass you are.

I spoke with Humberto for a few moments. Unsurprisingly, nothing had happened for the past few hours, but we were certain that the enemy had noticed that one of their patrols, including one of those impressive and expensive tanks, were missing.

I sat next to my comrade, whispering a carajo as my back cracked again. I saw across the room and saw two of our paramilitaries sitting there. Their uniforms were… well they were not uniforms. More like a combination of military pants and black sweaters.  “Rimaykullayki ¿Allillanchu?,” one of them said at me, with a friendly wave. Humberto frowned as there was no “sir” in their greeting, but I did not care. We were not a priority unit so we got paramilitaries to refill our ranks. They cared little for military discipline and hierarchy… and they spoke Quechua and very little Spanish, but they were good fighters. And I was going to need more good fighters.

Finally I saw our pirate’s booty. Across the floor was a little amalgamation of weapons we had collected from the deceased. Our prized trophy was the Rheinmetall MG 3 machine gun that we had managed to save from that enemy tank before the fire took it.

At this point I had plenty of weapons at my disposal, enough to take a small regiment, but alas I did not have enough fingers to pull all the triggers (I made a mental note of asking the captain for more paramilitaries).

Humberto handed me some grapes that we had picked up from the trees around the house and I tried to not wolf them down in one handful. El desayuno.

I took this moment to pick out a couple of papers from my backpack. They were some commentaries I had printed weeks ago from some American think tanks about our little conflict. The gringo scholars were trying to figure out why this war had come to be and who was behind it.

I could not help grunting a bit in disgust. Yes, my country had bought tanks and helicopters from the Soviet Union and, yes, we had bought new Russian tanks in the past years. But really, does this made my government, and the army I was part of, Moscow’s client state? Was it so unconceivable to believe that countries could still go to war with each other not because the powers-that-be decided it, but because of our own national interests… or because we just did not have anything better to do on a Tuesday?

We already knew the reasons for the war, I thought as I drank more water, wishing it was alcohol, after I had finished with the grapes. El Presidente had gone on TV, radio, print media and social media (he loved to tweet) to make his predictably nationalistic speeches about us fighting the good fight. “Los rotos no son de confiar,” he had boldly proclaimed during a speech in one of our big southern cities. I guess he picked the place so the city’s volcano (an active one) would appear in the shots, making him appear even more defiant. “Si no atacamos, sera como en la guerra del siglo 19,” He also said, which was true. We had been attacked first in the 19th century and we were ever-weary of them attacking us first again.

But it quickly became clear that we had started this war for resources: lithium and copper. Bolivia, our other neighbors, were known as the “Saudi Arabia of Lithium,” but the “rotos” had recently located some big veins of lithium, which, combined with their already vast copper industry (the biggest one in the world), would make it a regional economic powerhouse.

And we could not let that happen.

Lucky for us the enemy was in disarray, university students and some indigenous groups were protesting again. Hence, the government had been more focused on internal security rather than checking on what neighboring militaries were up to. I know, gulping more water (que sed!), sneak attacks are not particularly brave things to do, but we were going for victory here, not heroism.

Suddenly my earpiece came to life. “We got company señor, a column of five-six humvees are approaching. They look gringo made, there are a couple of trucks behind,” said my second in command. This was obviously the enemy we were expecting as my army did not have any humvees in our arsenal.

For the fifth time in 25 minutes I considered taking quick gulp of the pisco for my nerves but decided against it, once again. I turned around to face Humberto and the paramilitaries. I felt bad that I have yet to learn their names – not that it mattered, everyone looks the same with a black ski mask on anyways.

Out of habit, I checked that my Herstal rifle was still hanging from my shoulder and, also out of habit and because I did not want to make an ugly corpse, I checked myself on a broken mirror that I found on the ground. Sadly, I still had greasy bed hair. I unceremoniously dropped the mirror, making it break a couple of more times, and nodded at my soldiers, “vamos, the barbarians are at the gates.”

Humberto smiled and stood up, carrying his trusty grenade launcher. He and the others grabbed the machine gun and some of the rifles that littered the room. I cursed at myself, “I should have spread this around to everyone else last night.” I helped by grabbing a couple of Makarov pistols and some ammo for the machine gun.

“Russian pistols, Chinese grenade launchers, German tanks, American jeeps… I’m fairly sure our uniforms are from India…there is not one ‘made in your homeland’ product here is there?” Humberto said to no one in particular as he briskly walked to the kitchen door. No one shot him so I figured that, indeed, there was no enemy sniper out there.

The two other Quechua-speaking paramilitaries followed him, not saying a word. I stood by the door for a moment, trying to see anything as the day dawned. I saw Vanessa and Marta leave the house rapidly making their way across the street. There was a 4 story-building not far which I guess would be her new location to greet our incoming guests.

I was in the process of multitasking again, walking and sneezing (guess sleeping shirtless was not such a good idea in spite of the heat), when a small ghost tackled me to the ground.

Carajo, I guess there was a sniper out there after all.

The year is 2021.

This is the story of the second War of the Pacific.

This is not a story about heroes and villains, but a story about an unknown war fought by unknown soldiers.

The author would like to thank M.M. and S.D. for their invaluable editorial suggestions.

All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. This story is a complete work of fiction. In no way does it represent the points of view of any of the organizations that this author is affiliated with.

Narco-Submarines: Drug Cartels’ Innovative Technology

This is an article in our first “Non Navies” Series, written by Byron Ramirez and Dr. Robert J. Bunker

Drug cartels today are much more organized, adaptive, and strategic. Over time, they have acquired vast financial resources that allow them to invest in technologies geared towards providing them with a strategic edge. Drug cartels have learned to adapt to a changing environment where law enforcement authorities and militaries are also seeking to find their own effective ways of disrupting the flow of illicit drugs. Technology has become a source of competitive advantage and both drug cartels and militaries have been investing in engineering and technological tools that will allow them to counteract one another.

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narcosubOn one side, drug cartels attempt to optimize their operational efficiency while mitigating the risk of detection, seizure, and capture. On the other side, we have law enforcement and militaries’ efforts to improve their surveillance and detection capabilities. This race to out-flank and counteract one another has led to the development of narco-submarines.

During the past twenty years, Colombia’s various drug cartels have engaged in investing in and developing narco-submarine technology that will yield a competitive edge. Over time, their increasing need to evade capture and confiscation of narcotics led drug cartels to move away from using go-fast boats and planes, and instead turn towards developing in-house, homemade, custom built narco-submarines.

A narco-submarine (also called narco-sub) is a custom-made, self-propelled vessel built by drug traffickers to smuggle their goods. Over the years, their engineering, design and technology have improved, thus making them more difficult to detect and capture. Moreover, from a cost-benefit perspective, the yielded benefits are far superior to the associated costs of building these vessels.

Although militaries and law enforcement agencies have become progressively collaborative in their efforts to reduce the flows of narcotics, the use of narco-submarines enables narcotics to continue to reach their destinations while reducing the probability of detection. Albeit, there have been some confiscations of narco-submarine vessels over the last several years. These appropriations in turn have led to our understanding of how narco-submarines are designed, engineered, and used to deploy narcotics.

Cocaine smuggling from the Andean region of South America to the United States generates yearly revenues in the high tens of billions of dollars (e.g. 2008 UN estimate of USD $88 billion retail) and over the last thirty-five years has produced in the low trillions of dollars in retail sales. The use of narco-subs and related vessels represents one component of a broader illicit distribution strategy that also relies upon go-fast boats, airplanes, the hiding of narcotics inside bulk containers and smaller commodities, drug mules, and other techniques to covertly get this high value product into the U.S.

In fact, as of June 2012, maritime drug smuggling accounts for 80% of the total illicit flow from the Andean region into Honduras, Mexico and other mid-way transportation regions prior to entry into the U.S. About 30% of the maritime flow is estimated by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to utilize narco submarines. Overall, however, maritime interdiction rates are very low. In March 2014, the commander of the U.S. Southern Command testified to Congress that:

“Last year, we had to cancel more than 200 very effective engagement activities and numerous multilateral exercises, Marine Corps Gen. John F. Kelly told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee. And because of asset shortfalls, Southcom is unable to pursue 74 percent of suspected maritime drug trafficking, the general said.

“I simply sit and watch it go by,” he continued. “And because of service cuts, I don’t expect to get any immediate relief, in terms of assets, to work with in this region of the world.”

As a result, it can be seen that narco-submarines and related maritime drug trafficking methods are being carried out with relative impunity, with only about 1 in 4 craft presently being interdicted.

Per the testimony of Rear Admiral Charles Michel, JIATF-South Director, in June 2012, the following statistics pertaining maritime contact numbers and interdictions are provided:

JIATF-South detected an SPSS [Self-Propelled Semi-Submersibles] at sea for the first time in 2006. By 2009, the interagency detected as many as 60 SPSS events were moving as much as 330 metric tons per year. Prior to 2011, SPSS had only been employed by traffickers in the Eastern Pacific. However, since July 2011, JIATF-South has supported the disruption of five SPSS vessels in the Western Caribbean, each carrying more than 6.5 metric tons of cocaine.

There have been a total of 214 documented SPSS events, but only 45 were disrupted due largely to the difficulty of detecting such low-profile vessels.

The numbers of these vessels which now exist is also highly debatable with potentially dozens of them being produced every year by criminal organizations in Colombia such as the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia), Rastrojos, and Urabeños. One point greatly influencing the numbers of these vessels which exist at any specific time is if they are utilized once and then scuttled after their delivery (the traditional U.S. military viewpoint) or if they are utilized multiple times (the traditional Colombian military viewpoint). Depending on the perspective held, greater or lesser numbers of narco subs would be required to be produced each year to replenish the vessels lost due to capture, accidental sinking, intentional-scuttling to avoid capture, and, potentially most importantly, at the end of a delivery run.

What is known is that the capability of these vessels has grown over the last two decades with their evolution and, if the Colombian cartels’ dream of making the journey (using fully submersible narco-subs) to West Africa and Europe is realized, such subs would very well represent a valuable cross Atlantic trafficking resource that would not likely be scuttled at the end of such a profitable illicit trade route.

Given this context concerning the immense values associated with the cocaine trade to the U.S. and the large amount of these illicit drugs not being interdicted during the initial leg in their journey to the United States, we have written a paper, “Narco-Submarines – Specially Fabricated Vessels Used For Drug Smuggling Purposes”, soon to be released by the Foreign Military Studies Office (FMSO) and intended to be an initial primer on the subject of narco-submarines, that is, those specially fabricated vessels utilized principally by Colombian narco traffickers and developed to smuggle cocaine into the U.S. illicit drug market.

narco2This work is anticipated to appear in the Foreign Military Studies Office (FMSO) website as unclassified research conducted on defense and security issues that are understudied or under-considered. The work contains a preface written by Dr. James G. Stavridis, and a number of essays written by U.S. Navy Captain Mark F. Morris, Adam Elkus, Hannah Stone, Javier Guerrero Castro, and Byron Ramirez discussing and analyzing narco-submarines. The paper also comprises a comprehensive photo gallery, arranged in chronological order, which allows the reader to observe the evolution of narco-submarine technologies. It also contains a cost benefit analysis of using narco-submarines, as well as a map and a table that highlights where these distinct narco subs were interdicted. The data that we came across seems to propose that cartels have been using different types of narco-submarines concurrently; hence, they seem to be employing a mixed strategy.

This study is important and relevant to the present challenges faced by law enforcement authorities and militaries. This effort seeks to add value to the existing literature on the subject as it contains several essays which describe the complexity of the challenges that narco-submarines present. The document also provides the background and context behind the emergence of these vessels. Furthermore, the work illustrates the evolution of narco-submarine technology and the advances in their design, features, and technical capabilities.

Finally, it is important that we collectively consider the potential of these types of vessels to transport more than just narcotics: the movement of cash, weapons, violent extremists, or, at the darkest end of the spectrum, weapons of mass destruction.

While this is a volume that will be of general interest to anyone with an interest in global security, the intended readers are military, homeland security, and law enforcement personnel who wish to learn more about these vessels and their respective capabilities. Policymakers and analysts may also find the work useful for understanding the detection and interdiction challenges that these vessels generate. Increasing the area of knowledge about narco-submarines should enrich and deepen our understanding of the threat they pose to our domestic security, and indeed to the global commons.

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How Peru Got its Territory Back

Territorial conflict has been a continuing problem in South America and is often related to the possession of natural resources that represent a considerable income to the countries in dispute. On January 27, 2014, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) gave its verdict on a case brought before the court in 2008 by Peru, which asserted a territorial claim on approximately 38,000 sq km of the Pacific Ocean bordering with Chile. The court ruled in Peru’s favour, in a judgment that was widely regarded as fair.

This is not the first confrontation between Peru and Chile. “Guerra del Pacifico” War of the Pacific (1879-1883) was a well-known conflict between both countries and resulted in the annexation of valuable disputed territory on the Pacific coast. It grew out of a dispute between Chile, Peru and Bolivia over control of a part of the Atacama Desert located between 23rd to 26th parallels of the South American Pacific coast, known for an abundance of mineral resources, particularly sodium nitrate.

After years of confrontation between the three countries, Chile and Peru signed the Treaty of Ancón relinquishing the Province of Tarapacá as well as the departments of Arica and Tacna to Chile in 1883. These territories would remain under Chilean control, however, the two nations were unable to agree on how or when to hold the plebiscite, and in 1929, both  countries signedthe Treaty of Lima, in which Peru gained Tacna and Chile maintained control of Arica. Even though Peru regained Tacna, some fishing dominions were given to Chile thereby angering Peruvians financially dependent on artisanal fishing. Diplomatic relations between the two nations have consequently remained tense for many years.

Today both countries are once again disputing, this time in relation to claims on maritime territories. The issue was brought to the fore in 2008 when Peru filed the claim at the International Court of Justice in The Hague that marine boundaries had never been formally agreed upon by the two countries and needed objective international approval. In its defense, Chile posits that the line had been defined in agreements signed in 1952 and 1954, which Peru argued were strictly fishing accords.

After 5 years of tension, the court has finally ordered that the common marine border be redrawn to follow the current border for 80 miles from the coast but then will veer southwest for 120 miles, giving Peru the disputed “external triangle.” The current border runs due west from the coast for a full 200 miles, a demarcation that Chile has enforced since it won the Pacific War with Peru and Bolivia.

In a statement issued after the verdict was announced, Peruvian President Ollanta Humala said “Peru is pleased with the outcome” of the court’s decision, and would “take the required actions and measures immediately for its prompt implementation.” The Peruvian government also said that the decision applied to nearly 19,000 square miles of offshore territory, or more than half of the 37,000 square miles it originally sought. Peru’s fishing industry estimates that the disputed zone has an annual catch of 565m Peruvian nuevo soles ($200m; £121m), particularly of anchovies which are used to make fishmeal. Peru will also gain access to some extra swordfish, tuna and giant squid.

Peru’s victory will not only significantly increase income in its fishing industry, but will also go a long way in restoring nationalism after a humiliating defeat to Chile in the 19th Century.

Alternatively, Michelle Bachelet, who will assume the Chilean presidency in March, stressed that even though Chile had lost none of its territorial waters (which extend for 12 nautical miles from the coast), the ruling is a “painful loss” considering the importance of this external triangle. As a condition for implementing the agreement representatives from the government of Chile have also suggested that Peru sign an International Convention on the Law of the Sea and accept the line through Hito 1 as its land border (losing 350 meters of beach); an agreement Peru remains reluctant to address, hoping instead for swift implementation of the ICJ’s verdict.

Andrea was born in Bogota, Colombia, and immigrated to Canada in 2006. She graduated in June 2012 from York University with a Bilingual BA in International Studies. After finishing her BA, she moved to Geneva, Switzerland, where she had the opportunity to do an internship with the World Health Organization (WHO). She is pursuing a Double Master in Public Policy and Human Development at the University of Maastricht, Holland. This article was re-published by permission and appeared in original form at The Atlantic Council of Canada.