Opinion: Arm the OAS to Fight the Cartels

Opinion: Arm the OAS to Fight the Cartels

Date:

The Clan del Gulfo (AGC) was born from an internal clique of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (UAC) in 1997. It seized the Urabá region of Colombia, which is adjacent to the Panamanian border and allows access to the Caribbean and the Pacific Ocean. During its expansion years, the AGC waged two significant low-level wars in this region from 1997-2006 and 2007-2009. These conflicts pitted the AGC against the ELN, FARC, and the Colombian military, ultimately resulting in the deaths of at least 6,000 people. These wars attracted the ire of the Colombian government, which undertook several campaigns to capture or kill the AGC leadership. Operations Agamemnon I and II, launched over six years from 2016-2021, seized approximately 100 million tons of Cocaine, 1,500 AGC members, and more than $170 million in assets.  These operations cost millions of dollars and the lives of dozens of security officers. However, on October 23, 2021, Dario Antonio Usuga, the leader of the AGC, was captured by the Colombian military in an operation that involved hundreds of troops, 20 helicopters, elements of the Colombian Navy, and drones. The Colombia military also received aid from U.S and U.K. intelligence services in the form of satellite imagery.

It is clear that since 1997, the most effective method in dealing with the AGC has been military action, as demonstrated by the success of Agamemnon I and II. However, since the Colombian Drug Trade now reaches across borders, through transit states such as Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico, a regional solution is needed to eliminate the AGC finally. That regional solution can exist by giving more robust military power to the Organization of American States (OAS). While the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) has the potential to eliminate regional threats in South and Central America, the non-military character of its charter, the absence of U.S. and Canadian support, and member states’ reluctance to contribute significant funding will most likely continue to make it a negligible force.

OAS Background

In 1826, Simon Bolivar originally came up with the idea of a league of American republics with a combined military. Despite his dreams being crushed at the onset of widespread civil war in Gran Colombia and the emergence of nationalist blocs in South and Central America throughout the 19th century, the idea of an American bloc lived survived. In the early 20th century, the International Conference of American States and the Pan American Union evolved into the Organization of American States Charter. The Organization of American States was founded on April 30, 1948, to create a bloc of American nations determined to combat communism in the Western Hemisphere. It currently has 34 members, including the U.S. and Canada.

Immediately following the founding of the OAS, the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance (RIO Treaty) was signed, which called for all signatures to come to the collective defense of any member, effectively creating an American NATO. While the RIO Treaty has been invoked several times, most notably during the Cuban Missile Crisis and 9/11, the treaty’s legitimacy is widely in question today. Several member states protested the U.S.’ decision to invade the Dominican Republic during the 1965 Dominican Civil War instead of waiting for the Inter-American Peace Force to go in together. The U.S.’ decision to support the U.K. during the Falkland War also strained OAS member states’ confidence in the treaty, resulting in Mexico, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Venezuela formally withdrawing.

The OAS is divided into three central bodies: The General Assembly, which is the primary decision-making body; the Permanent Council which handles day-to-day activities; and the General Secretariat, which is the primary bureaucratic body that executes the policies determined by the two bodies as mentioned above. The General Secretariat consists of six secretariats: the Secretariat for Political Affairs, Executive Secretariat for Integral Development, Secretariat for Multidimensional Security, Secretariat for Administration and Finance, Secretariat for Legal Affairs, and the Secretariat for External Relations. These bodies are funded through member states’ dues, in which the United States contributes roughly $50 million of the $81 million annual budget.

The primary mission of the OAS today is to ensure democracy in the western hemisphere, primarily through election monitoring. It intervened in the 2010 Haitian presidential election, sent a monitoring mission to the 2016 and 2020 U.S. presidential elections, and concluded that the 2019 Bolivian general election was fraudulent. However, several member states have expressed concern over the amount of influence the U.S. exerts through the organization, prompting Nicaragua and Venezuela to begin proceedings for withdrawal.

Secretariat for Multidimensional Security

Of the six secretariats of OAS, the Secretariat for Multidimensional Security (SMS) is uniquely positioned to address the security concerns presented by AGC. The SMS was mandated in the 2003 Declaration on Security in the Americas to coordinate cooperation in: laws, compliance with laws, prevention of delinquent activities and drug consumption, victims assistance, rehabilitation of criminal offenders, and the promotion of peace and security in the hemisphere. It accomplishes these missions by funding and operating the office of the Secretary for Multidimensional Security, Department of Public Security, the Executive Secretariat of the Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission (CICAD), and the Secretariat of the Inter-American Committee against Terrorism (CICTE). Of these four offices, the CICAD and CICTE have the most robust lines of action, which extend beyond advisory policy boards. However, concerning countering the AGC, this proposal will only focus on the CICAD, although the recommendations presented here may also apply to the CICTE.

The CICAD encompasses three primary focus areas: Demand Reduction, Institutional Strengthening and Integral Programs, and Supply Reduction. The first two primarily concern socio-economic studies and policy recommendations for nations to approach the drug problem as a public health problem characterized by addiction. However, Supply Reduction focuses on training and policy recommendations for member nations to combat the production and trafficking of illicit drugs. The three primary programs in Supply Reduction are the Counterdrug Intelligence Training (CIT), Maritime Narco-trafficking Control, and the Groups of Experts.

The Maritime Narco-Trafficking Control primarily acts as an advisory board to member states in collaboration with the Regional Security System, the Drug Trafficking Maritime Analysis Center, the OAS Inter-American Committee on Ports, and the CICTE. Their office is primarily concerned with building the capacity of member states’ customs and border patrol agents. The Groups of Experts represent leading researchers and scientists on issues relating to chemical substances, pharmaceutical products, and maritime narco-trafficking. However, these panels also only offer advisory assistance.

Counterdrug Intelligence Training is perhaps the most potent tool the OAS has in combatting groups like the AGC due to its multilateral nature and ability to influence counter-drug officers in member nations. The CIT encompasses the Regional Counterdrug Intelligence School of the Americas in Bogota, Colombia, and the Caribbean Counterdrug Intelligence Training School in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, and Tobago. CIT exists to fulfill the Hemispheric Plan of Action on Drugs which outlines several dozen priority action points in each significant focus area. The CIT trains hundreds of officers from member states a year on how to combat drug trafficking in their nations. By using the CIT as a template for how multilateral law enforcement and military can deploy together through the OAS, this proposal will show how the 1948 charter, RIO Treaty, and the Hemispheric Plan of Action on Drugs can be utilized to create a multinational military force to be deployed to member states to degrade and destroy narco-paramilitaries like the AGC.

Proposal

The Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance commonly referred to as the RIO treaty is the central pillar behind the concept of the OAS. The treaty outlines how if one nation of the OAS is attacked, it can invoke the treaty to receive direct aid or military intervention. The treaty was invoked by Juan Bosch, the democratically elected President of the Dominican Republic, in 1965 after the Dominican military ousted his government. The Inter-American Peace Force included 42,000 American, 1,130 Brazilian, 250 Honduran, 184 Paraguayan, 160 Nicaraguan, 21 Costa Rican, and 3 Salvadorian troops. So, there is precedent in the OAS deploying military troops within a member state. However, due to the transnational nature of illicit drug trafficking groups, this proposal recommends that the OAS establish an additional program office under Supply Reduction, the Transnational Combat Group (TCG).

According to the Hemispheric Plan of Action on Drugs, which provides the priority action objectives for each OAS program, Supply Reduction Priority Action 3.5 prioritizes the strengthening of the presence of the state in areas affected by the illicit cultivation in drug production, where it is implemented, consistent with the circumstances of each state. This priority, as well as several others, provides a direct justification for establishing the TCG. So, within the framework of the OAS, there exists precedent and argument to establish a direct action group composed of multinational troops to degrade and destroy narco-paramilitary groups.

With regards to the AGC, it is clear that combined military operations with U.S., U.K., and Colombian intelligence have been the most effective vehicle in capturing AGC leaders, drugs, and other assets. However, as demonstrated by the fierce protests against the establishment of new U.S. military bases in Colombia, this proposal assumes that the government of Colombia would request OAS direct action support within its borders. To accomplish the Supply Reduction Priority Action 3.5, these troops would most effectively establish a military base in the Urabá region, where the Colombian military does not operate a significant installation. The 21 major Colombian Army bases are conspicuously located far from the contested region. Since the AGC established its historic headquarters around the Urabá gulf in the municipalities of Tierralta and Valencia of Cordoba, as well as 11 other municipalities in Antioquia, a permanent Colombian military presence must be established there. The possibility of TCG deployments to these regions is not a stretch of the imagination considering the designation of Colombia as a major non-NATO ally by the United States in May of 2022. This desire of both governments to increase bilateral military relations indicates that the Colombian government will most likely be open to a U.S.-led TCG operating in Urabá.

Conclusion

While the original charter of the OAS described the bloc as a bulwark against communism in the Western Hemisphere, the regional challenges to the Americas have evolved dramatically in the last 20 years, and so has the nature of the union. Transnational narco-trafficking and the rise of narco-paramilitaries have profoundly impacted the regional security of Central and South America. This proposal identified that the AGC, which still has considerable power in Colombia despite several successful military campaigns by government forces, can best be combatted by a multilateral military force. The Colombian government retains the right to invoke the RIO Treaty to call for the aid of OAS member states. Additionally, the OAS has the chartered duty to defend the national sovereignty of its member states. By establishing a Transnational Combat Group under the Supply Reduction Program, the OAS can directly confront drug traffickers throughout South and Central America, finally putting teeth back into the failing alliance. However, one of the most significant challenges to this proposal is the reluctance of nations like Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Cuba to work with the United States, citing concerns of influence.