MS Risk Blog

Violence in Mexico Reaches Tourist Areas

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The recent string of Cartel violence in tourist areas in Mexico suggests that the weakening of the Sinaloa Cartel and Mexico’s decreased willingness to cooperate with U.S. law enforcement agencies are causing Cartel’s to become more emboldened and operate more frequently.

Over April, there has been a string of incidents related to cartel violence in the coastal state of Quintana Roo, especially the tourist sites of Cancun and Tulum. Cartel violence in Mexico is increasing and has been over the past year. Whilst the victims of the violence have not been in extreme numbers, the frequency of the attacks have been increasing. The latest statistics available show that the homicide rate in 2021 was 28 homicides per 100,000, with around 90 percent never reported. The increase in cartel violence is likely a result of the U.S. government indicting 28 Sinaloa cartel members, including three of ‘El Chapo’ Guzman’s sons; Ovidio Guzman Lopez, Jesus Alfredo Guzman Salazar, and Ivan Archivaldo Guzman Salazar. The charges against the members have weakened the Sinaloa cartel’s power, which appears to have driven them to increase activity and rival cartels to challenge their position. Mexican President Lopez Obrador’s criticisms to the U.S. charges exemplifies the deteriorating relationship between the two countries. The cartels have likely taken advantage of the deteriorating relationship which has decreased the DEA’s ability to operate in the country.

On 14 April, the U.S. Department of Justice announced charges against twenty-eight Sinaloa cartel members in response to the growing fentanyl crisis. The U.S. saw a rapid increase in the amount of fentanyl overdoses in 2021, with around 70,000 people dying from overdoses in 2021, almost a four-fold increase over five years. In 2022, the DEA seized more than fifty million fake prescription pills laced with fentanyl along with more than 10,000 pounds of fentanyl powder. The indictments were aimed at hitting the cartel’s global network; a complex manufacturing and supply network including Chinese and Guatemalan citizens supplying chemicals required to make fentanyl, as well as running suspected drug labs in Mexico.

Mexican President Lopez Obrador’s response to the U.S. Department of Justice’s announcement may have emboldened cartels to act more freely. On 17 April, Lopez Obrador criticised the Sinaloa investigation by the Drug Enforcement Association (DEA), claiming it was “abusive, arrogant interference that should not be accepted under any circumstances.” The increased hostility towards the U.S. was highly likely a result of U.S. allegations of corruption in Mexico back in March, which furthered the already souring relationship between the two countries. The Mexican government has imposed restrictive rules on how agents can operate in Mexico, and slowed down visa approvals for a time since the return of General Salvador Cienfuegos who was on U.S. charges of aiding a drug gang in 2020. The continued deterioration has aided in leading to a dramatic increase in cartel violence as the reduction in ability for the DEA to move against the cartels appears to have emboldened them giving them freedom of movement.

The spread of cartel violence to tourist towns supports the theory that cartels are increasing their span of influence. On April 26, authorities discovered eight bodies dumped in the tourist city of Cancun. Whilst not unusual for bodies to often be found dumped and mutilated by the cartel, they are rarely found in Cancun, which is the heart of Mexico’s tourism industry on the coast. This also coincides with the fighting for territory between cartel’s, which is likely a result of the recent decrease in the Sinaloa cartel’s power with the capture of Guzman’s sons. The cartels often use violence to send a message to those who would challenge them. Whilst the bodies have not been identified, it is likely that they were either dumped there to send a message to those who would challenge the currently weakened Sinaloa cartel, or as a message to challenge the Sinaloa cartel by either the Gulf cartel, the New Generation Jalisco cartel, or Grupo Regional, all of whom have been identified as operating in the area. The most likely of the three being the Jalisco cartel as they are well known rivals of the Sinaloa cartel.

With both the limitations imposed on U.S. operatives in Mexico by the Mexican government as well as the weakening of the Sinaloa cartel, who are considered the most powerful in the world, it is likely that cartel violence will continue to increase unless drastic measures are taken. The increase in trends in both fentanyl smuggling and cartel violence over the past few years are indicative of this argument.

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In August 2022, Colombians brought a left-wing politician to power for the first time. The new president, Gustavo Petro, decided from the start of his mandate to implement one of his electoral promises, namely to negotiate “total peace” with the armed groups that are ravaging the country. These negotiations led to a ceasefire on 1 January, which was sometimes poorly respected – as April Indepaz reported 80 ceasefire violations since – but also led the government to take concrete measures to show its goodwill, sometimes contested by the opposition. The negotiations brought both encouraging results and defeats, casting doubt on the authorities’ ability to really succeed in this ambitious medium-term plan.

In 2016, the right-wing government of Juan Manuel Santos negotiated peace agreements with armed rebel groups, including the notorious Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). These agreements included components for comprehensive land reform in rural areas, political recognition of the groups to allow them to participate in public life, an end to the decades-long conflict that caused the death of 262,197 people, mainly civilians, a solution to the problem of illicit drugs, an agreement on victims of the conflict, and finally mechanisms for implementation, verification and complaints. While these historic agreements earned the Colombian president the Nobel Peace Prize, the authorities are struggling to implement them seven years later. Moreover, one of the weaknesses of the 2016 agreements is that many armed rebel groups have not adhered to them. Thus, the National Liberation Army (ELN), the Popular Liberation Army (EPL), the Gaetanist Self-Defence Militia of Colombia (AGC), also known as the Clan del Golfo, and dissident factions of the FARC have rejected the agreements and continue to operate in Colombia. Colombian security agencies estimate that there are 17,600 members of armed rebel groups still in activity. In this context, the negotiations begun in October 2022 by the left-wing president elected the same year and himself a former guerrilla of the 19th of April Movement (M-19), Gustavo Petro, are hopeful.

On 1 January 2023, the government announced a 6-month bilateral ceasefire, renewable, between the authorities and the armed rebel groups still operational in order to support the peace negotiations. But only a few days later, the ELN and its 5850 estimated members announced that they were rejecting the ceasefire, forcing the government to resume fighting against the organization without, however, putting an end to the negotiations. The ELN will not apply the ceasefire for a time, after the 17 January and 13 February emergency meetings in Venezuela and Mexico respectively lead to a solution. Despite the difficulties, President Gustavo Petro multiplied goodwill gestures to facilitate the negotiations. On January 24, he declared that the country would reduce its efforts to forcibly eradicate coca crops. It was for the authorities to change tactics and focus on prosecuting drug trafficking leaders and offer economic alternatives to coca farmers instead. On 1 February, the president pledged to pay compensation to the victims of the extermination of members of the Patriotic Union (UP) by the government of the time in the 1980s-1990s. On 9 February, he announced the opening of “sanctuaries” for members of the groups to ensure their safety and to show goodwill in the negotiations. On 16 February, he also announced that it would submit a bill to limit prison sentences to 6 or 8 years for drug traffickers if they stopped their activities, leading to criticism from right-wing parties who accused the government of promoting the creation of a narco-state.

On 13 March, it was the turn of the right-wing Clan del Golfo to cause difficulties. At the time, the north of the country was experiencing major demonstrations and damage, often very violent, by illegal miners protesting government measures to combat illegal gold mining. The Clan del Golfo, involved in this type of illegal activity in the region, was quickly accused of being responsible of the riots, which imposed a blockade on the 16 neighboring villages and de fact prevented the 250,000 inhabitants from accessing basic necessities such as food and medicine. On 20 March, the authorities unilaterally decided to suspend the ceasefire with the organisation and to resume the armed struggle. The riots did not officially end until 6 April, but the ceasefire was not reactivated. On 21 April, the Clan del Golfo, through its lawyer Ricardo Giraldo, declared that it was ready to resume negotiations if the government recognised its political status. But this point is not on the agenda today according to Gustavo Petro, who considers the organisation to be more of a cartel than a right-wing political movement.

However, on the same 13 March, the Colombian president announced that the Estado Mayor Central (EMC), a splinter group of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) that chose not to negotiate the 2016 peace plan, was ready to begin peace talks, marking a significant step forward for the government. And therein lies the ambivalence of the current negotiations, with the government showing both encouraging results for what it calls “total peace” and setbacks that jeopardize such an ambition. With little support from the opposition and sometimes a few dissenting voices within his own party, Humane Colombia (HC), the president must deal with these domestic challenges and convince people of these measures, which are more social than repressive, in addition to having to reassure his US ally that this policy is well-founded, as it is a major supporter of Colombia’s fight against drug trafficking. In these conditions, it is uncertain whether Gustavo Petro will be able to impose a “total peace” in the country.

Iran’s Nuclear Deescalation: Motives and Regional Implications

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After a long period of tensions over its nuclear program, Iran recently moved to renew cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). This shift was probably aimed at averting further international pressure against Iran, and in particular the danger of an Israeli military strike against its nuclear infrastructure. With Tehran seemingly seeking to avoid escalation and restoration of the previous nuclear deal being unlikely, the US and its allies will likely also refrain from more aggressive moves and accept the status quo. Furthermore, this will facilitate the process of reconciliation between Iran and its Arab Gulf rivals, benefiting China’s interests in the region.

On 4 March 2023, IAEA chief Rafael Grossi, during a visit to Tehran, announced a new agreement with Iranian authorities regarding the country’s controversial nuclear program. According to the joint statement between Iran and the IAEA, the two sides agreed to increase inspections at the Fordow fuel enrichment facility, a critical part of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, and reinstall monitoring equipment that Iran had removed in 2022.

This apparent breakthrough came after years of escalating nuclear tensions between Iran and the West. Since former US President Donald Trump withdrew from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreement in 2018 and reimposed sanctions against Iran, Tehran had been gradually escalating its violations of the deal, enriching uranium above the agreed 3,67% limit and increasing its enriched uranium stockpiles. Although President Joe Biden’s administration joined European Union (EU)-mediated negotiations on rejoining the pact in 2021, they stalled in September 2022, while Iran further intensified its enrichment activity to 60% in November of that year. Last February, IAEA inspectors discovered uranium particles enriched up to 83,7%, near weapons-grade 90%. A quarterly meeting of the IAEA’s 35-member Board of Governors last month was expected to censure Iran for its advances and refusal to cooperate with the agency. Considering these developments, why did Iran decide to renew cooperation with the IAEA?

First, the timing was important. As a result of Grossi’s visit, the IAEA’s Board of Governors finally refrained from approving a resolution censuring Iran. A particularly important dispute concerned an IAEA investigation into the presence of uranium traces at three previously undeclared locations in Iran. During Grossi’s visit, Tehran also pledged to provide information on that issue, despite previously demanding the shutdown of the investigation. Iran thus managed to avoid another escalation of tensions and a potential referral to the United Nations (UN) Security Council that could have resulted in the reimposition of UN sanctions, lifted in 2016 as part of the JCPOA (separate from unilateral US sanctions imposed since 2018).

Second, another important factor probably was Iran’s concern about potential US or, in particular, Israeli military action. Israel considers Iran’s nuclear program to be a major threat and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly threatened direct military strikes against Iran in order to prevent it from acquiring a nuclear weapon. According to recent reports, Israeli officials warned the US and European governments that such a strike against Iran could be triggered if Tehran enriches uranium above 60%. The US has also made clear that “every option is on the table” to prevent Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons. Considering Israel’s existential fears over Iranian nuclear activities and Tel Aviv’s and Washington’s willingness to strike against Iran’s interests in Syria and elsewhere in the region, Iranian leaders most likely take these threats very seriously.

With the threat of military escalation looming, Iran’s rapprochement with the IAEA almost certainly averted this risk in the short term. It also provided some reassurance to the international community that Iran is not actively seeking to develop nuclear weapons, limiting support for any potential attacks by its enemies, particularly Israel. At the same time, “freezing” the status quo, at least temporarily, benefits Iran, as it provides important leverage. As of mid-February 2023, the country has reportedly amassed 87 kg enriched to 60%. This can be rapidly enriched to weapons-grade 90% and its quantity is enough for developing “several” nuclear weapons if Iran decides to do so, as Grossi had estimated last January. This enables Iran to threaten its Western adversaries with a ratcheting up of its nuclear program if they make further aggressive moves against it, while being far enough from weaponization to calm fears and discourage them from supporting an Israeli strike.

The US and its European allies, despite their dissatisfaction with Iran’s nuclear progress, are likely to accept this new reality. Despite early expectations, hopes for restoring the JCPOA have dimmed. Due to the much more advanced stage of the Iranian nuclear program compared to 2015, Iran’s military support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, its violent suppression of the anti-regime protests that erupted last September, and the new rounds of Western sanctions triggered by these policies, the US president is unlikely to risk political capital in order to rejoin the deal. At the same time, Washington is also unlikely to support military action against Iran, which would risk embroiling it in a new major conflict in the Middle East, divert attention and resources away from confronting Russia and China, and disrupt oil production and transportation in the Gulf, further destabilizing global energy markets. Although Iran’s uranium stockpile is significant, the US intelligence community estimates that Tehran would need one year to actually produce a functioning nuclear weapon with it. In a February interview, CIA chief William Burns said that the US does not believe that Iranian leaders have yet made a decision to do so.

Notably, recent reports indicated that the US has explored the idea of providing partial sanctions relief to Iran in exchange for Tehran halting its enrichment at 60%, although the Iranians have apparently rejected it so far. Still, these moves demonstrate that, with the restoration of the JCPOA being an unlikely prospect and its unwillingness to respond militarily, the US is willing to accept the reality of Iran being a nuclear-threshold state, as long as Tehran does not start actively pursuing nuclear weapons and allows IAEA inspections for verification purposes. Without Washington’s backing, Israel is unlikely to attempt a military strike against Iran on its own and will likely also adjust itself to the current situation, although it will almost certainly continue its policy of containing Iranian influence throughout the Middle East. After all, its aforementioned warnings show that Tel Aviv does not view Iran’s current uranium enrichment levels as an imminent threat, as long as Tehran doesn’t go beyond that.

Third, Iran’s moves to deescalate nuclear tensions are taking place within the context of its wider shift toward reconciling with its regional adversaries and its policy of building close ties to China. Last month, Iran agreed to reestablish diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia, and it is also improving relations with other Arab Gulf rivals, such as the UAE. China, which mediated the agreement between Tehran and Riyadh, has a vital stake in stabilizing the Gulf region and ensuring the stable flow of energy supplies from the region. As Arab Gulf states also felt severely threatened by Iran’s advancing nuclear program, the latest Iran-IAEA deal assuages these concerns and facilitates their rapprochement with Tehran. This serves Chinese interests as well, since it makes it easier for Beijing to maintain close relations with both Iran and its Arab partners and solidify its influence in the Gulf.

In conclusion, the agreement between Iran and the IAEA will help calm concerns about Iran’s nuclear activities and reduces the risk of military conflict in the region. A lot of difficulties lay ahead, as the IAEA has said that the monitoring gap of the past two years makes verifying the peaceful nature of these activities more complicated. But it was clearly demonstrated that Tehran seeks to avoid escalation, at least for now. The US and European countries share this stance. The deal will also make it easier for Arab states to move ahead with their reconciliation drive with Iran, indicating an overall desire to better manage regional rivalries.

The U.S. drone collision with Russian fighter jets over the Black Sea has led to an increase in tensions between the two powers and America’s response has opened an opportunity for Russia to become more emboldened

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The collision between the U.S. MQ-9 Reaper drone and the two Russian Su-27 fighter jets on 14 March over the Black Sea has led to a significant increase in tension between the two countries. This is the first time the countries have directly come into contact since the Ukraine war began in February 2022. Neither country has decided to take action against the other for the incident, however Russia completely blames the U.S. for the incident claiming that the drone was within Russian temporary airspace. The Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu has since released a statement that Russia will be considerably more hostile towards such actions in the future. It can be inferred from the statement that Russia’s retaliation should an incident like this happen again will be severe. In response to the collision and Russia’s statement the U.S. have opted to fly other surveillance drones farther south over the Black Sea to avoid further souring of relations and avoid an incident that could lead to direct conflict between the two nations. This response has been met with criticism and concerns that Russia may become emboldened in the future as a result. Russia is finding ways to avoid the current sanctions imposed on them by the U.S. The Russia’s response to the collision as well as the ineffectiveness of U.S. sanction may pressure them in the future into taking direct action.

U.S.-Russia tensions have persisted since the Cold War over the second half of the twentieth century. The Ukraine War is only the latest of a disagreement between the two nations. However, whilst the U.S. has provided support to Ukraine in terms of training of personnel and financial aid, they have not moved to further engage in the conflict. Following the end of the Cold War the U.S. were open to the possibility of co-operation with Russia. The last time the two leaders of the nation’s having met been in 2021 at Villa La Grange in Geneva. However, since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine the U.S. have revoked their views of potential co-operation with the superpower and are now focused on displacing the nation as one of the great world powers.

The collision is the first time the two parties have directly encountered each other since the Ukraine war began two years ago. The U.S. Department of Defence says the Su-27s acted recklessly and continually dumped fuel on the drone whereas the Kremlin has continually denied involvement in the incident. The debate between the two nations stems primarily on whether the drone was acting within international airspace or otherwise. Russia claims the drone was operating in airspace that was too close to Crimea to be considered ‘international’. Russia cited threats of U.S. intelligence gathering using the spy drone to be used to help the Ukrainian military in the war. There has been no compromise in agreement over the events so far.

On 16 March, two days after the collision, the Pentagon released a video showing the events of the collision. In the video it is shown that a Su-7 makes two passes in front of the drone, spraying fuel in front of it. This is a harassment tactic the US experts say they have not seen before. Upon the second pass the image becomes pixelated, indicating a collision and upon camera recovery a bent propeller wing can be seen, damage serious enough for the US Air Force to force the drone down. The video cannot confirm the pilots intent however the video does appear to confirm that the collision was not an accident, giving credibility to the U.S. accusations of Russia. Since the videos release Russia continues to deny involvement in the incident whilst also placing blame on the U.S. Following the release of the video, Russia’s defence minister Sergei Shoigu went on to present the two Su-27 pilots awards for preventing the drone from violating temporary Russia airspace on 17 March. Despite attempts to prevent relations between the two nations declining from the U.S. defence minister Lloyd Austin via talking to Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu, they appear to have failed. The statement he received from Shoigu said that Russia “will in future react in due proportion.” This statement highly suggests that Russia has become considerably more hostile and wary of U.S. intentions than they once were.

U.S. response appears to exercise due caution in their future actions. Since the collision, U.S. officials have decided to move the drones further South to avoid another incident such as this and further conflict. This will limit U.S. intelligence gathering from the drones. U.S. response has not been met with much praise. Despite video evidence displaying Russia as the aggressors, the U.S. have appeared to quell in response to the statement issued by Shoigu to Austin. This response will likely encourage Russia to become emboldened in the future. Washington continues to insist it wishes to avoid direct conflict with Russia. Therefore, it appears they will continue to operate using their current policy of placing sanctions and export control over Russia. Russia has already been subject to heavy sanctions and export controls from the U.S. government over the past two years. They have grown closer to other countries sanctioned by the U.S., such as China and Iran, to avoid the effects of sanctions. Shortly after the collision, President Xi Jinping visiting Russia on 20 March and praising Putin’s “strong leadership” in the Ukraine war. This visit was planned before the drone collision so is not a response to the collision itself. China has also recently helped repair diplomatic ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia. There is the possibility therefore that the nations could be forming an unofficial economic alliance. Should they succeed in forming this economic block, the U.S. will be unable to effectively impose sanctions on Russia. Therefore, they may have to push for direct involvement in the Ukraine war to prevent its extended continuation or Russian victory.

El Salvador: a mega-prison for a prolonged state of emergency

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The state of emergency decreed on 27 March 2022 by President Nayib Bukele was once again renewed without difficulty by the authorities on 16 March, and while the 40,000-seat mega-prison, opened to cope with the constant influx of suspects, received its first prisoners on 24 February, raising concerns on the part of observers and NGOs as to the regime’s respect for human rights, and this in spite of convincing results in the fight against crime and gangs in the country. It is highly likely that the state of emergency will be renewed again in the near future, as the opposition to this radical measure seems to be inaudible.

On 26 March 2022, the country experienced an impressive wave of violence, police recording 62 homicides on that day alone. The murders, attributed to the Mara Salvatrucha, also known as MS-13, one of the most dangerous gangs in El Salvador along with its rival Barrio-18, prompted President Bukele’s government to take a radical and equally dramatic step the next day: declare a state of emergency. Renewable if necessary, it allows the arrest and detention of suspects without warrants. According to the Salvadoran Constitution, a state of emergency can be declared “in case of war, invasion of the territory, rebellion, sedition, catastrophe, epidemic or other general calamity, or serious disturbance of public order”. This measure has since led to the arrest of nearly 66 000 suspects, when the number of MS-13 and Barrio 18 members is estimated by the government to be between 76 000 or 118 000 by some experts. Only 5% of inmates detained under the state of emergency have been released. As the Minister of Justice and Security, Héctor Gustavo Villatoro, announced on 15 February, the state of emergency to combat gangs will continue until all criminals are arrested, which suggests that this supposedly exceptional measure will last.

To cope with the influx of inmates, and while El Salvador’s prisons are already stretched beyond their capacity, the authorities opened on 31 January a 40 000-capacity Terrorism Confinement Center (TCC), better known in the media as a mega-prison, guarded by nearly 600 soldiers and 250 police. Less than a month later, on 24 February, the prison received its first 2 000 inmates. The TCC was quickly denounced by human rights NGOs and by some South American government leaders, including Colombian President Gustavo Petro, who did not hesitate to compare it to a concentration camp. A large majority of the 66 000 suspects arrested, 57 000 are still awaiting trial by the judicial authorities, which makes NGOs fear that cases will not be properly handled by Justice. In addition to arbitrary arrests, deaths in custody, extreme overcrowding in prisons, abuse and torture are reported, according to some testimonies. The UN reported at least 90 deaths since the measure came into force a year ago, and are concerned about the authorities’ lack of transparency in investigations. Beyond these exceptional measures, the government does not seem to be looking for long-term solutions other than lifting the rights of the suspected and arbitrary arrests. No plan to reduce social inequalities or fight corruption has been proposed. Worse, the government is cracking down on the press, while some media such as El Faro and Revista Factum, which have taken a stand against corruption, were targeted by the government on 15 February, accusing them of false reporting or money laundering. Others claim that the authorities use Pegasus spyware to monitor opponents and journalists, or paid trolls to attack reputations, although both have yet to be proven. These events could suggest that the regime is sinking into authoritarianism.

Nevertheless, the state of emergency is proving popular with the population, which is 95% in favor of it according to a poll in March, and effective since on 10 March the police recorded the 319th day without murders. While the homicide rate per 100 000 inhabitants in 2021 was 18.1%, or 1 147 murders over the year, one of the highest in the world outside war zone, in 2022 it was 7.8% for 495 murders over the year, and it is estimated at 2.6% in 2023, with 40 homicides between January and March. These results seem to give a free hand to President Bukele’s regime, which does not foresee an end to the state of emergency in the coming months.