The tragedy of September 11, 2001, made terrorism the U.S.’s security priority for the following decade, but, in Latin America, this new focus on terror came at the expense of fighting organized criminal groups.

In some ways, 9/11 turned Latin America into a forgotten region for the U.S. Between 2000 and 2010, Central American nations received, on average, between $1 billion and $12 billion in military and police aid every year, with a few exceptions. Compare that with the $20 billion injection into Iraq at the peak of reconstruction efforts in the 2004 fiscal year.

Manpower — the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) — also turned away from the region. Getting money from Congress became a case of rejigging each department’s stated priorities, so as to emphasize the “war on terror.” In the 1990s, the best and brightest agency officers looked to make their careers fighting the so-called “war on drugs.” After 9/11, counter-terrorism became far more career-enhancing than work on organized crime. Priorities shifted, and as a result during the 2000s Latin America essentially saw a “brain drain,” as attention was refocused on Afghanistan and Iraq.

Arguably, the new emphasis on terrorism distracted attention from the fight against organized criminal groups, despite the security threat they pose — homicides, attacks against the state and the compromise of democratic institutions. It’s worth questioning whether the 9/11 terrorist attacks focused interest in fighting transnational terrorism, at the expense of confronting organized crime.

But framing the issue in this way ignores the multiple ways in which terrorists collude and conspire with criminals, and vice versa. Both types of groups thrive in areas where there is political instability and little state presence; the groups are also frequently linked when it comes to dealing with weapons and drugs.

In Latin America, the line between criminal activity and terrorism is increasingly blurred. A common description of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) is “narco-terrorists,” while Mexican groups like the Zetas and the Familia Michoacana have been described as “insurgent” forces. If a Mexican gang member tosses a grenade in a crowded plaza, is that terrorism? What about the recent casino arson attack in Monterrey, which left 52 people dead?

In Mexico and Central America, the line between terrorism and organized crime is frequently obscured, and policy makers have at times inappropriately described violent (and non-violent) acts as “terrorism.” In some ways, this is an insiduous response to the position of Colombia just after 9/11, when the country continued to attract significant U.S. resources even when the White House’s attention shifted to Afghanistan and the Middle East. The “terrorism” label also helped justify the government’s hardline retaliation against the group, something which President Felipe Calderon has tried to evoke.

Confusing “terrorist” acts with criminal violence cheapens the word. Lumping terrorists and criminals in the same conceptual group also makes it more difficult to design appropriate countermeasures to fight these groups, if “terrorists” and “criminals” are lumped conceptually together. The main motive of criminal groups is to make money; however horrific the means they employ, spreading terror is not a goal in itself. Terrorists, on the other hand, have stated political goals. Criminals have a vested interest in corrupting the state, not overthrowing it; and in many cases prefer to use corruption over violence as their primary tool. It’s worth remembering that, even though some Mexican groups engage in brutal, violent acts which attract the attention of authorities, most criminal groups want to shun the spotlight: the fundamental intention is to undermine, not attack, the state, through bribes or the ballot box.

The key point when Latin America’s fight against organized crime became identified with the global “war on terror” was when Colombian authorities began using “Plan Colombia” money from the U.S. to fight the FARC. The aid was originally designed as a counter-narcotics package, with a bulk of funds earmarked for coca eradication. Post-2002, attention shifted from eradicating efforts to providing Colombia with military assistance, primarily used to fight Colombia’s largest guerrilla group. This was a big success: thanks to U.S. assistance, Colombia’s Armed Forces doubled in size, and fought hard enough to push the FARC to the remoter corners of the country.

In Colombia, as in the U.S., the “war on drugs” became increasingly intertwined with the “war on terror,” both in terms of policy and rhetoric. Just one day before the 9/11 attacks, Colombia’s other major drug trafficking group, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) joined the FARC on the U.S. foreign terrorist watchlist. President Alvaro Uribe spoke relentlessly of the FARC’s “narco-terrorism,” posing himself as the region’s keenest recruit to President George W. Bush’s campaign. At no time was Colombia more in tune with U.S. policy than the mid-2000s, when it stood in contrast with a slew of countries in Latin America who had elected leaders unwilling to declare solidarity with the U.S.

The fight against terrorism and that against organized crime have important parallels and overlaps. In Latin America, politically motivated groups like the FARC are increasingly taking on the characteristics of criminal gangs, while organized criminal groups, most notably Mexico’s cartels, are threatening the state and carrying out such large-scale attacks that some describe them as insurgent. But, moving into the second decade after the 9/11 attacks, it is time for the U.S. to define its Latin America security agenda in terms of the region’s own threats, with an understanding of the synchronicities between terror and crime.

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