As Russia deepens its military and counternarcotics involvement in Latin America, the United States has to decide whether this represents competition, or welcome cooperation in the war on drugs.
In March, Russian drug czar Viktor Ivanov visited Nicaragua to inaugurate a new Managua counternarcotics training center financed by Moscow, which will train not only Nicaraguan police but also officers from neighboring countries. Russia has also agreed to supply Nicaragua with firearms, helicopters and urban assault vehicles, reported the Nicaragua Dispatch, with the aim of making the country a "locomotive and stronghold" for Central America's fight against drug trafficking.
On the way to Nicaragua, Ivanov visited Peru, where the two nations signed an agreement to cooperate on counternarcotics. Later that month, the Peruvian government made a $406 million deal to buy 24 Russian helicopters. During his trip, Ivanov also took part in a conference of police chiefs across Central America, the Caribbean, Mexico and Colombia, and was thanked for Russia's help to regional forces.
Earlier in March, the first major joint Russian-Nicaraguan anti-drug operation dismantled a Nicaragua-based trafficking ring that allegedly supplied drugs to Europe, arresting 26 people and seizing around 1.2 tons of cocaine.
Ivanov's tour follows a similar trip last year in which he visited Mexico, Cuba, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Panama, offering counternarcotics support and training for police officers.
US Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement William Brownfield told the Nicaragua Dispatch that he "welcome[d] any contribution, and donation and any support that the Russian government wants to give in this hemisphere." Russia's assistance to Nicaragua was "complementary" to the United States' work in the "Northern Triangle" (El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala), said Brownfield.
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Russian involvement in Latin America has been growing for several years, particularly in left-leaning countries, a harkback to the Soviet era which has led some to suggest the alliances are more about geopolitics than fighting drug trafficking. However, anti-drugs cooperation also has major economic benefits to Russia, particularly in terms of arms sales, which have soared in the last 10 years. In 2009 Russia took the United States' place as the main supplier of arms to Latin America for the first time, with sales totalling $5.4 billion. Russian arms sales to Latin America grew 900 percent between 2004 and 2009, according to Russian newspaper Pravda. "We are getting back forgotten, old Soviet markets, like Peru, for example," Russia's director of Military Sales Services, Alexander Fomin, said last month.
Ties between Latin America and Russia began to deepen in earnest in 2008 when then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev carried out a Latin American tour in his first year in office, visiting Peru, Brazil, Venezuela and Cuba. One Russian diplomat claimed that cooperation "could be broader than in the Soviet era," and hinted at broader strategic motives by stating that "Latin America has already ceased to be the United States' backyard." Since then, Moscow has signed far-reaching defense, energy and trade agreements with countries such as Ecuador, Bolivia and Brazil, and Russia-Brazil bilateral trade is predicted to increase to $10 billion annually in the next three years.
Venezuela is Russia's closest ally in the region, and provides an example of a partnership that has raised concerns in the United States. Venezuelan spent $4.4 billion on Russian arms between 2005 and 2007, becoming the world's biggest purchaser of Russian weaponry in 2011. In October, Ivanov announced that Russia had invested around $16 billion in energy projects in Venezuela, and stated that improving the quality of antinarcotics efforts in Latin America was necessary "in order to protect our investments in that region from drug lords."
He has also criticized the United States' militarized drug policy in Latin America, and has made comments suggesting that Russia seeks to develop an alternative multilateral consensus on the topic, undermining US dominance in the region.
The US Army's Strategic Studies Institute has labelled Russia's increasing involvement in Latin America as "a fundamentally geopolitical approach directed against the US with an economic component." Others dismiss this as fearmongering, pointing out that Russia has a genuine interest in fighting drug trafficking. Its hardline approach to drugs within its own borders, under which dealers are likened to "serial killers" and addicts forced into harsh treatment centers or jailed, has been roundly criticized by international observers. The arms trade, meanwhile, is one of its leading industries, which it naturally seeks to expand into new markets.
"We're well past the Cold War era," analyst James Bosworth told InSight Crime. "This really is about drug trafficking and economic interests. The US has nothing to worry about. As long as Washington doesn't overreact in response, it won't impact US influence or interests in the region. Combating organized crime is a potential area for cooperation, not competition, with Russia."