When President Barack Obama lands in Latin America on 19 March for his first visit since he became president, he will find a region locked in a low-intensity war that is virtually unseen and unheard in the rest of the world.
To cite but a few examples: Organized crime, and the fight to quell it, leaves more dead in Central America than the civil wars of the 1980s; by the time Mexican President Felipe Calderon leaves office in December 2012, there will be more drug-related homicides on record in Mexico than American dead on record during the Vietnam war; a crack epidemic, much like the one that swept through U.S. cities in the 1980s, is tearing through Brazil; Bolivia is facing down criminals from Eastern Europe; Venezuela is struggling to corral its own military, which is increasingly tied to organized crime.
The impact of organized crime in the region threatens to undo 30 years of economic and political progress. Fledgling and experienced democracies alike are folding under the criminals’ pressure (and campaign contributions). Militaries are being called in to police cities. Drug use is spreading, and health and educational services are ready to buckle.
To date, Obama has largely ignored the rising threat of criminal organizations in Latin America. The U.S. is cutting aid to Colombia, and its packages to Central America, the Caribbean and even Mexico are largely symbolic. In the case of Central America, for instance, the Obama administration is giving an average of $12 million to each of the seven countries involved in the regional security initiative.
But perhaps after his short, five-day visit, when he comes face to face with some of the reality on the ground, and hears the political voices of these nations plead for help, he will understand that these countries are struggling with forces they can no longer see, name, or uproot; that it’s time for the U.S. to look south again with same urgency it had when the enemy was called communism, lest some of these fragile nations enter into a tailspin that resembles something closer to anarchy.
InSight has been following the stories, the groups, the players and the trends regionwide, and, through this collection of reports, offers you a glimpse at the challenges the region is facing. It will also be adding stories and analyses as the week progresses.