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Mexican Cartel Launches Bold Attack to Free El Chapo’s Son

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On Thursday, heavy fighting broke out in northern Mexico after security forces attempted to seize one of the sons of jailed drug kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán.

Fighting lasted for several hours after Ovidio Guzmán López was found during a routine patrol in the city of Culiacán, some 1,235 km (770 miles) northwest of Mexico City.  After entering the house, they found four men, including Guzmán, who is accused of drug trafficking in the United States.  Footage depicted heavily-armed men firing on police, with cars, bodies and burning barricades strewn in the road.  According to the country’s Security Minister Alfonso Durazo, a patrol of National Guard militarized police came under intense fire from outside the home where they had located Guzmán, adding that police were forced to retreat from the building without Guzmán in custody for their own safety and “to recover calm in the city.”  A lawyer for the Guzmán family has confirmed that “Ovidio is alive and free.”  The chaos continued as night fell.  A large group of inmates escaped from the city prison while residents cowered in shopping centres and supermarkets as gunfire continued to be heard across the city.  A state police spokesman confirmed that several prisoners escaped from a prison during the chaos, with video footage depicting a group of at least twenty prisoners running in the streets.  It was not immediately clear how many had escaped.  Cristobal Castaneda, head of security in Sinaloa, told the Televisa network that two people had been killed and a further 21 were injured, according to preliminary information, adding that police had come under attack when they approached roadblocks manned by gunmen.  Officials have advised residents not to leave their homes.

Meanwhile Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has disclosed that he would hold a meeting of his security cabinet in order to discuss the incident.

Under El Chapo’s leadership, the Sinaloa cartel was the biggest supplier to the US, according to officials, and with El Chapo currently in prison, the cartel is said to be partially controlled by Guzmán, who has been accused of drug trafficking in the US. He is believed to be in his twenties. El Chapo, who ran the cartel for decades and escaped from prison twice before being arrested and extradited to the US, was found guilty in a US court in February of smuggling tons of drugs and sentenced to life in prison.  He is believed to have twelve children, including Ovidio.  In February, the US Department of Justice unveiled an indictment against Ovidio and another of the brothers, charging them with conspiracy to distribute cocaine, methamphetamine, and marijuana in the US.  The indictment gave Ovidio’s age as 28 and stated that he had been involved in trafficking conspiracies since he was a teenager.

Thursday’s chaos in Culiacan, which has long been a stronghold for the Guzmán’s Sinaloa cartel, will likely increase pressure on President Obrador, who took office in December 2018 on a promise to pacify the country, which is weary after more than a decade of drug-war fighting.  The release of Guzmán however is likely to send the wrong message as it indicates that the state, including the army, could potentially be blackmailed and that overall, officials are not in control.  Reports have indicated that presumed cartel members apparently intercepted a radio frequency used by security forces warning of reprisals against soldiers if Guzmán was not freed.  Overall security in Mexico has declined this year, and officials are already reporting that murder rates for 2019 are set to be at a record high. Furthermore, Thursday’s incident follows the massacre of more than a dozen police in western Mexico earlier this week and the killing of fourteen suspected gangsters by the army a day later.

Dissident FARC fighters call to arms

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Some three years after the peace accord between the Colombian government and the leftist guerrilla movement the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC after their Spanish initials, a group of former FARC fighters announced that they will be taking up arms again and launch a new offensive. This is a serious threat to the already highly fragile peace process and could have the possibility of overturning the peace accord if not managed properly by President Ivan Duque and his government. If they act decisively, they might be able to stop the unrest in its tracks. However, it could also trigger a violence escalation and worsen the situation. If they, on the other hand, decide to focus on dialogue, there might be a possibility of reaching an understanding. However, the window of opportunity for dialogue might already have passed.

The peace accord of 2016 was considered a landmark agreement, and the whole world was watching as President Juan Manuel Santos shook hands with the FARC leader Rodrigo Londono, AKA Timochenko. After some debate, the agreement was ratified in November 2016. FARC was founded in 1964 on the basis of a Marxist-Leninist ideology and were formed to fight huge levels of inequality in Colombia. After having been hit hard by Colombian security forces over the years prior to the peace accord, some analysts speculate that FARC could not sustain its mission anymore, whilst FARC themselves insist that they have always wanted peace. The deal that was struck in 2016 included rural reform and development, ensured the political participation of FARC, substitution of illicit crops and the establishment of a truth commission and a commitment to victims’ rights. In return, FARC would disarm, declare all their assets and hand them over and the rebels would provide intelligence on any drug trafficking the may have been involved in.

However, the implementation of the accord has been bumpy and inconsistent, with a surge of violence against social leaders, struggles to adequately reintegrate and protect ex-FARC combatants and concerns regarding the promised rural development and coca crops replacements. Further, after FARC disbanded, the power vacuum left was quickly seized and embattled between criminal groups and other guerrilla movements, most notably perhaps the National Liberation Army (ELN). Dissidents from FARC, who never abided to the peace accord, have been active as well. The August 2018 inauguration of the new government, spearheaded by Ivan Duque, meant substantial modifications of the peace deal. Some progress was made, but the tone and rhetoric seemingly turned colder. Some analysts mean that Duque’s administration’s half-hearted attitude towards the peace process risks putting it in jeopardy.

In a video posted on social media on 29 August 2019, a group of FARC dissidents, led by the group’s former second-in-command Luciano Marin, AKA Ivan Marquez, announced that they will initiate a new offensive, and declared a “new chapter” in FARC’s armed struggles. He said that the Colombian state had abandoned the peace agreement, and thus, FARC would take up arms once again. Marquez was accompanied by the former FARC commander known as Jesus Santrich, who has been in and out of Colombian jail the past couple of months, before he managed to escape, and Hernan Dario Velasquez, AKA El Paisa, who commanded FARC’s strongest military wing. The figures in the video are considered popular and does command respect amongst former FARC fighters. They have allegedly for a year tried to coordinate dissident FARC units, with varying degrees of success. One main point of conflict between FARC units is the role of drugs in a potential new uprising, and some analysts claim that this disagreement can lead to in-fighting. While FARC’s main motivation has always been political, drug trade has been a reliable way to fund their operations.

Even though most of ex-FARC members have abided to the peace agreement, it is estimated that the post-FARC movement is numbering around 2,500 fighters, both former FARC members and new recruits. The Colombian Organized Crime Observatory claims that there are 37 FARC groups spread across the country. There are also urban militias, previously supporters of FARC, that can possibly support a new uprising.

The new call to arms by Ivan Marquez and his rather influential group of FARC dissidents is arguably the single most critical development since the implementation of the peace accord in 2016. The threat of this neo-FARC movement cannot, however, be considered as grave as the threat posed by FARC in its prime. Its fragmentary nature, with considerable risks of in-fighting, and the rise of new armed groups in the vacuum of FARC’s demobilisation makes for a complex situation that will be difficult to navigate. However, if the call to arms catches tailwind and Marquez and his people manages to unite former fighters and new recruits motivated by disappointment of the government’s questionable implementation of the peace process, this could be the initial spark of a highly problematic situation. Not only for the government, but for ordinary citizens as well, who certainly suffers under the threat of renewed turmoil in the country.

The Violent Situation in Yemen’s city Aden

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The Yemen conflict has been ongoing since 2015 marked by consistent fierce fighting between the Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi led Yemeni government and the Iran-backed Houthi movement. Last year, the UN declared that Yemen was on the verge of a major catastrophe and that conditions had hugely deteriorated since previous visits to the region. However, the fighting has taken an unexpected turn this month, with sharp divisions surfacing between factions within the Sunni Muslim military coalition led by Riyadh battling the Houthi movement. The port city of Aden has suffered the majority of violence. It has been controlled by the Saudi-backed government since the Houthi movement overruled Sanaa in 2014 but recently has been overpowered by the separatist movement.

The Southern Transitional Council (STC) or separatists and the internationally recognised government of President Hadi are by name part of the Western-backed coalition fighting the Houthis. However, this unity has rapidly broken down in August. The separatists and Hadi’s government both have rival agendas, with the separatists demanding self-rule in the south. There have also been disagreements over the Islamist Islah party, a key part of Hadi’s government. The UAE views Islah has connected to the Muslim Brotherhood, a transnational Sunni Islamist organisation founded in Egypt, which the Arab nation has banned. Islah is tolerated by Saudi Arabia due to their contribution in propping up Hadi.

Violence has erupted throughout the port city of Aden during August. The deadliest day in Aden in nearly 2 years was seen on 1 August. The Houthi movement launched missile and drone attacks on a military parade in the city, killing 36 people. An explosive hit a military camp belonging to the Yemeni Security Belt forces backed by the UAE. Suicide bombers further blasted a police station in another of the city’s neighbourhoods. The attacks killed dozens of separatist soldiers, raising intense friction between the groups and prompting several days of violence in the city. The STC accused the Islah party of complicity in the Houthi missile attack on southern forces and Hadi’s government of mismanagement. As a result, on 7 August, southern separatists clashed with presidential guards in Aden, killing three people and injuring nine others. Fighting continued for a third consecutive day, with reports of at least 20 people killed. At least five civilians were amongst the dead and dozens were wounded in the violence, according to doctors and security officials. On 10 August, separatist forces seized military camps and other state institutions in the city, prompting Saudi Arabia to call for an urgent meeting. However, despite earlier statements from separatist leaders that they are ready for peace talks, the separatists have refused to hand back control of Aden port to the Saudi-backed government. This has delayed a summit in Saudi Arabia that will discuss reformation of Yemen’s government in order to include the separatists and halt the clash.

The situation in Aden has severely ruptured the military coalition led by Riyadh and complicated UN efforts to host political talks, with fighting between the groups wasting time and money which could be better spent on working towards an overall ceasefire agreement in Yemen. The likelihood of the groups rekindling appears low. According to a Yemeni official, the summit’s inclusion of the STC is only linked to them fully withdrawing from Aden first. However, the STC have said its forces will remain in Aden until the Islah party and northerners are removed from powerful positions in the south. A delay is likely to further increase tensions, violence in Aden and even incite the Houthis to launch further attacks. Amidst the conflict, the Houthis have targeted Saudi energy infrastructure. On 17 August, a drone attack launched by the Houthis on an oilfield in eastern Saudi Arabia caused a fire at a gas plant. The group targeted the Shaybah oilfield with 10 drones. However, there were no injuries and no interruptions to oil operations. The UN has called for a de-escalation of violence, with UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths requesting the parties to honour their commitment to peace and put more efforts towards a political solution to the conflict. The recent conflict is only likely to further extend the bloody war in Yemen. Any chance of a coveted ceasefire between the Saudi-led coalition and Houthi movement appears low as long as the violence between the separatist movement and the Hadi government continues.

Security Advisory: Incident Reported Off Fujairah Port (14 May 2019)

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The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has ordered a probe into the sabotage operation against four vessels off its coast on Sunday 12 May 2019.  The incident occurred at around 0600 h local time (02:00 GMT), east of the UAE emirate of Fujairah, which is close to Hormuz, between Iran and Oman.  In a statement released on Sunday, the UAE foreign ministry warned that “subjecting commercial vessels to sabotage operations and threatening the lives of their crew is considered a dangerous development.” The statement reported that four commercial vessels had been targeted near its territorial waters, though it did not identify the vessels beyond stating that they were of various nationalities.  No injuries or fatalities on board the vessels have been reported and as well as no spillage of harmful chemicals or fuel.  On Monday 13 May, ship management company Thome Ship Management confirmed that the hull of a Norwegian-registered product tanker was damaged by an unknown object off the coast of Fujairah port on Sunday.  In a statement, Thome reported that “the master of MT Andrea Victory reported the crew were unharmed but there was a hole in the hull area of the aft peak tank.  The ship is not in any danger of sinking.”  A statement released by the Saudi Press Agency on Monday, citing the energy minister, confirmed that two Saudi oil tankers faced a “sabotage attack” off the coast of Fujairah, adding that the tankers were on their way to cross into the Persian Gulf and had suffered “significant damage.” According to the country’s energy minister Khalid al-Falih, “one of the two vessels was on its way to be loaded with Saudi crude oil from the port of Ras Tanura, to be delivered to Saudi Aramco’s customers in the United States.”  Industry sources are reporting that the Saudi tankers affected were the Amjad and Al Marzoqah.  The fourth vessel is reportedly UAE-flagged.

The UAE ministry statement was released after reports emerged on Sunday of an explosion inside Fujairah port during the morning hours.  A senior Iranian lawmaker and head of parliament’s national security committee, Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh disclosed on Sunday that reports of “explosions” near Fujairah port showed that the security situation of Gulf states was fragile.  The media office of the Government of Fujairah however denied in a tweet that blasts had occurred inside Fujairah port, disclosing that the facility was operating normally.  The UAE ministry statement, which also denied that any incident had taken place inside the port, disclosed that the government had taken all necessary measures and launched an investigation in coordination with international authorities. The statement went on to say that “the international community should carry out its responsibilities to prevent any parties trying to harm maritime security and safety, which would be considered a threat to international safety and security.”  In another statement released overnight, the GCC secretary-general, Abdul Lateef Al Zayani, described the sabotage as a “serious escalation,” adding, “such irresponsible acts will increase tension and conflicts in the region and expose its peoples to great danger.”  Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon and Yemen’s internationally-recognized government have also condemned the attacks.  Meanwhile Saudi Arabia on Monday expressed support for the UAE following the attacks, with the Saudi foreign ministry disclosing in a statement that the attacks constitute a “dangerous threat to the safety of navigation and affects negatively regional and international security.”

While it currently remains unclear who is behind Sunday’s incident, with the UAE so far not blaming any country or other party for the operation, analysts are reporting that they suspect Iran of being behind the operation as the country has continuously threatened to disrupt shipping in the strategic Strait of Hormuz.  While Iran has called for an investigation, with Iran’s Foreign Ministry calling it “worrisome and dreadful,” the incident comes amidst increasing tensions in the region. Last month, Iran threatened to “close” the Strait of Hormuz if it was prevented from using the waterway.  This followed a US decision to end exemptions from sanctions for major importers of Iranian oil, which came into effect on 2 May. Washington has also stated that it was deploying a US aircraft carrier and other forces to the Middle East as a result of what it said were Iranian threats.  Tehran meanwhile has called the US military presence “a target” rather than a threat.  Sunday’s incident may therefore be an attempt to convey a message to the international community that Iran’s threats should be taken seriously.  Likewise, the incident may be a way of testing Washington and its allies in a bid to see how they will react.  The US ambassador to Saudi Arabia has disclosed that Washington should take what he called “reasonable responses short of war” after it had determined who was behind Sunday’s attack.  In remarks published on 14 May, Ambassador John Abizaid told reporters in the Saudi capital Riyadh “we need to do a thorough investigation to understand what happened, why it happened, and then come up with reasonable responses short of war.”  A US official familiar with American intelligence disclosed on Monday that while Iran was a prime suspect in the sabotage, Washington had no conclusive proof.

Sunday’s incident raises concerns relating to the safety of vessels transiting the region and that the shipping lanes in the Gulf region could become a flashpoint as tensions continue to escalate between the US and Iran. On 13 May 2019, the US issued a new alert to maritime traffic in regard to the alleged “acts of sabotage” of vessels off the coast of the UAE.  The US Maritime Administration warned shippers to exercise caution when travelling past Fujairah.  MS Risk advises all vessels transiting the Strait of Hormuz to maintain heightened security levels and to be wary of any suspicious activity.



Venezuela’s President Maduro and the Colectivos

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Amid the Presidential conflict in Venezuela between de facto President Nicolas Maduro and self-proclaimed Interim President Juan Guaido, the pressure on Maduro seems to hold steady. On 30 April, Guaido called on the military to rise against Maduro and oust him. Maduro later claimed to have thwarted the attempted overthrow. The military leadership still appear to be loyal to Maduro, however, there are a number of reports detailing military desertions to Guaido. But Maduro has another ace up his sleeve. He is increasingly relying on a trusted, parallel security structure set in place in the early 2000s by former President Hugo Chavez. The ‘Colectivos’, a group of armed leftist gangs who functions as government “enforcers”, have on several occasions proved valuable to the preservation of the socialist order through their use of force to beat down on the opposition, and is continuing to show its significance. On 2 April 2019, the opposition-controlled National Assembly declared the Colectivos as terrorist groups. The threat of Colectivos is likely to, to some extent, impede the moral and ability of citizens to protest. It is probable that the Colectivos is a factor to Maduro’s ability to remain in power and is almost certainly a part in the fight against the new uprising that started 30 April. However due to their relatively small numbers, the Colectivos is not likely to have any decisive influence and if the military leadership turns against Maduro, the Colectivos will likely easily be subverted.

The appearance of Colectivos and their loyalty to the President is no coincidence. In 2002, after former socialist President Hugo Chavez successfully thwarted an attempted coup d’état, he realized the need for new security structures in the country that could counterbalance the army. He turned to the “Bolivarian Circles”, grassroot movements set up to support the 1999 Bolivarian Revolution. They had proven valuable in beating anti-government protests. After the coup, the Bolivarian Circles became known as Colectivos. In 2006, they were granted legitimacy and real influence. The Colectivos, consisting of some 5,000-7,500 people nationwide, engage in a multitude of activities. Some are genuine, like bookshops, summer camps and study groups, but they also engage in kidnappings, robbery, extortion and drug dealing seemingly with impunity. In the midst of the current economic crisis, they have even started trafficking food and medicine. There is little doubt about government ties with the Colectivos. There are several reports on the Venezuelan government funding the Colectivos’ activities and some Colectivos have formal links to the government. Further, certain members of Colectivos work for the Venezuelan armed forces. In some parts of the country, the Colectivos even have some state powers and act as a form of police. It is also reported that the government directly arm the groups.

The Colectivos is arguably a factor as to why Maduro has managed to cling to power. Former Minister of Correctional Services Iris Varela has said that they were a “fundamental pillar in the defense of the homeland”. On several occasions, they have been on the frontline against anti-Maduro protests. In the 2014 anti-government protests, the Colectivos were a big part in violently subverting the uprising, completely without impunity. Their role was repeated in the 2017 demonstrations, where they were, according to the New York Times, “key enforcers” for Maduro. They did, in one instance, storm the opposition-controlled National Assembly and assaulted lawmakers.

Following Guaido’s presidential challenge at the beginning of this year, the Colectivos have had several roles to play. In February, there were several reports of Colectivos reinforcing the border between Venezuela and Colombia amid the attempts to deliver humanitarian aid. They allegedly attacked people on both sides of the border and fired weapons at crowds. On 1 April, as he announced the electricity rationing following the devastating blackouts in the country, President Maduro called on the Colectivos to “defend the peace of every barrio, of every block”.

The fact that Colectivos are not official security forces has both positive and negative consequences for the government. By instilling fear in the opposition, the Colectivos can quite effectively thwart protests and demonstrations in a way the regular armed forces cannot.  Because they are a paramilitary group, not officially controlled by the government, they can, with a little encouragement, do things that a government cannot officially endorse. A Venezuela expert said that “They fulfill the classic work of paramilitaries, doing violent security tasks that security agents in uniform would be held accountable for”. But the government ties are, nevertheless, obvious, and if Maduro encourages and deploy the groups to overtly, he risks further damaging his already tainted reputation.

The relationship between the Colectivos and the government seem to be on the decline, both due to the economic crisis making funding difficult and reported discontent with the Maduro leadership, but the loyalty of the Colectivos does seem somewhat intact. The survival of the Colectivos largely depends on keeping the socialist regime in power. If Maduro falls, and Guaido comes to power, the groups will likely face massive pressure to disarm and disband. Thus, for the Colectivos, fighting to keep the regime in place might be purely out of self-preservation and an ideological belief in the Bolivarian revolution rather than loyalty to Maduro himself.

No matter why they fight, the Colectivos are a valuable, if risky, asset of the Bolivarian revolution and Maduro’s government. As they can do things that regular armed forces cannot, with impunity, the Colectivos can be used as a tool to instill fear within the opposition. Indeed, they are almost certainly an asset, however not a decisive one, in Maduro’s ongoing subversion of the new uprising starting on 30 April. But their reputation of brutality makes them a risky asset to employ for Maduro. With the international community scrutinizing the Venezuela situation, the more directly Maduro encourage the Colectivos, the more hits his reputation takes.