MS Risk Blog

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.

The Rising Conflict between Israel and Hezbollah

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Israel and Hezbollah have been engaging in fierce fighting this month, with Israel’s military shelling in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley in early September representing the most significant Israeli operation against the terrorist group since the 2006 Lebanon War. Hezbollah is considered a terrorist organisation by Israel and the United States, and is a major political actor in Lebanon. The conflict between the Iranian-aligned group and Israel comes amidst rising tensions between Iran and the US, particularly in regard to the seizure of an Iranian oil tanker at the beginning of July. This has further sparked fear of possible military escalation between Israel and Hezbollah.

Last month, alleged Israeli attacks in Lebanon reinforced existing rifts between the two countries, further building tension between Israel, the US and Iranian-aligned regions. Lebanese President Michael Aoun called the crashing of two Israeli drones near the Hezbollah media office in the Hezbollah-dominated southern Beirut district of Dahia a “declaration of war.” Israeli forces also killed two Hezbollah members in a strike against targets in Syria. After the Lebanese army fired at two Israeli drones in Lebanese airspace, the UN Security Council subsequently warned that violations of the ceasefire between Israel and Lebanon in the latter country’s south could lead to “new conflict that none of the parties or region can afford.”

In September, violence has escalated. On 1 September, Hezbollah fired several anti-rockets into northern Israel in retaliation for the Israeli drone attack in Beirut last month. Israeli military sources confirmed that rockets had been fired at an Israeli army base and military vehicles. The Israeli army responded by attacking targets in southern Lebanon. On 9 September, Hezbollah revealed that it had shot down an Israeli unmanned aircraft outside the southern town of Ramyah. The group said in a statement that it had “confronted” the drone with “appropriate weapons” as it was heading towards the town. Israel has also recently accused Hezbollah of building a precision-missile factory in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, just days after the cross-border flare-up. In a statement accompanied by satellite images, the Israeli military said that Hezbollah, with Iranian assistance, had brought specialised equipment to a weapons factory near the village of al-Nabi Shaith, in the Bekaa Valley, with the intention to set up a production line for precision-guided missiles. Hezbollah has previously admitted to possessing such weapons, which could be used to damage and destroy key Israeli infrastructure.

The fighting has triggered fears of a full-blown conflict. Israeli President Reuven Rivlin has cautioned the Lebanese government that if it doesn’t stop Hezbollah’s aggression against Israel, the terror group will drag both countries into war, stating: “We say clearly to the Lebanese government and its allies around the world: Hezbollah’s aggression must be stopped before we find ourselves dragged into a conflict that neither Lebanon nor Israel want.” Indeed, if the conflicts continue, it is likely that tensions may escalate, marking the start of another military conflict between Israel and the Lebanese Shia militia. Heiko Wimmen, the project director for Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon at the International Crisis Group, said that any miscalculation could spark a war.  Amos Yadlin, a former head of Israel’s Military Intelligence Directorate, agrees that the fighting could lead to another full-blown conflict. “The next war will be devastating for both sides and that’s why both sides want to avoid it,” Yadlin said. “[However], even without planning for a full-scale war, we can find ourselves there.” Others have suggested that Hezbollah fighters are eager to reopen old wounds with the Israelis due to the Syrian conflict winding down.

Indeed, Hezbollah is a formidable opponent both politically and militarily, with an estimated 40,000 to 150,000 rockets and missiles which are said to outmatch the weapons capabilities of most countries. The group also yields significant political clout in Lebanon, having secured a majority in Lebanon’s government where it influences most of the country’s domestic policy. A full-blown conflict would therefore have worrying repercussions for the rest of the Middle East and the worldwide community. The last time hostilities between Hezbollah and Israel flared into open conflict, approximately 1,300 Lebanese and 150 Israelis were killed.

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.

Niger Delta Militants Threaten New Attacks on Oil Installations

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On Monday 2 September, militants in the Niger Delta threatened to cause collateral damage to oil installations and facilities in the region in the event that the Nigerian Federal Government proceeds with the purported plan to take away supervision of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) from the Ministry of Niger Delta to the Office of the Secretary to Government of the Federation (OSGF).

In a statement issued by the leader of the group, “General” Johnmark Ezonbi, the Reformed Niger Delta Avengers (RNDA), which is in a coalition with nine other militant groups, warned that “we will bring the nation to its knees and return Nigeria to the era of another recession if the Secretary to Federal Government and so-called selfish self-centred, greed power-drunken politicians refuse to stop their evil arrangement.”  The statement went on to say that “it has come to our notice that there was an ongoing meeting initiated by some power-drunk  and self-centred leaders from the region, who have lost control of the affairs of the NDDC.  They are collaborating with some top officials in the Presidency to transfer the supervision of the NDDC to the OSGF all in a bid to divert the fund for their personal gains towards 2023,” adding “we sternly warn those behind this evil plot to retrace their steps or live to regret their actions as they will not be spared in the onslaught christened ‘Final Battle to Rescue NDDC from the Hawks, Blood for Oil.’”  The militants, which had been supportive of President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration, added that “any attempts to remove the NDDC, from the supervision of Niger Delta Ministry to OSGF would be met with stiff resistance not minding the negative impact our action would have on the nation’s economy.”  RNDA leader Ezonbi asserted that the fact that militants had accepted a ceasefire agreement did not mean that civilians living in the Niger Delta region would accept whatever the government decided, stating “they want to render the NDDC meaningless to the region when efforts should be geared to strengthen and release all funds accruing to the Commission, rather they want to reduce it to a mere bureaucratic office, we will not allow that to happen.”

So far, the Nigerian government has not responded to the coalition’s demands, though ignoring any such threats might prove problematic, particularly in a country which is already dealing with continued instability in its north-eastern region, where Boko Haram remains active.  Furthermore, Nigeria’s economy is overall recovering from recession, though according to officials growth levels remain constrained and reforms must be carried out to catalyse higher levels of growth and employment.  Any attacks carried out in the Niger Delta region will not only further destabilize the area but will most likely impact the economy and will further fuel tensions amongst the local populations, who despite the region’s oil wealth, have seen minimal funds coming back to the local communities.

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.