We’re now near the end of the most exciting three weeks of the year—NCAA college basketball’s final tournament. For those of you who might not know: each year, 68 college teams (annoyingly bumped up from 65 a few years ago) compete for the national title in a single-elimination bracket. The “bracket” is broken down into four regionals, with each regional consisting of teams seeded 1-16 (under the new format, there are two of one of the seeds in each regional). The winners of each regional advance to the Final Four, then the prevailing two meet in a final championship game, and a winner is crowned in early April. (Unfortunately my Georgetown Hoyas, like usual, flubbed in the first round.)
In the spirit of March Madness, as it is often called, I thought I would try out the bracket concept as it relates to Notes on the Periphery. This time, instead of basketball teams, I will use 64 “forgotten” conflicts around the world—including active insurgencies, long-standing “frozen” conflicts, and tense territorial disputes.
The 64 flashpoints are arranged into four regionals (Middle East & Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas). Each regional includes 16 conflicts—ranked roughly by how likely (in my completely subjective opinion) each is to escalate in the coming year.
Of course, this March Madness analogy is not meant to be an exhaustive nor testable model of prediction. (It’s more of a cheap trick to combine two of my interests—conflicts and basketball.) But the idea is to provide a brief introduction to a multitude of different disputes you may not have previously been familiar with!
Latin America, the third installment in this series (see the first here and second here!), is a fascinating region for geopolitical study. Rich in diversity due to the clash of cultures which defines its current social, cultural, and political existence, the countries of the Central/Southern Americas and the Caribbean are unique as a regional bloc. Thus, it is unsurprising that conflicts in this part of the globe are of a different nature. The seeds presented below reflect issues that- while non-traditional in the scope of armed, interstate conflict, are nonetheless recurring tensions that play a major role in the region. Roughly speaking, these “conflicts” listed below fit into three categories:
- Indigenous rights struggles and concurrent territorial claims from residents
- Interstate disputes, including claims to borders, maritime control in an area of the sea (especially in the Caribbean), or financial arrangements (in the case of Argentina)
- Disruptive activities from non-state actors, especially those of gangs, cartels, etc.
Here is the bracket in greater detail (please note: “belligerents” is a term used here solely for the purpose of consistency across all four parts of the bracket blog.):
#16. The Yanomami (Venezuela)
Primary Belligerents: Yanomami people vs. Outsiders (scientists, miners, etc.)
An indigenous people in Southern Venezuela and Northern Brazil, have been fighting the intrusions of gold miners for decades. The group has also used the political process in Venezuela to make their voices more heard, instituting voting and registration for their people. Recently, the group was the center of a falsified report by Survival International about a massacre of their people which did not take place.
For more info: Full historical background on the Yanomami pre- and post-outside contact.
#15 – Belize-Guatemala territorial dispute
Aggressively claimed in part or in whole by Guatemala since 1940, Belize has had to fight many a territorial dispute with its neighbor. That being said, Guatemala has recognized the Belizean government since 1991, and there have been many peaceful negotiations since, thanks to the help of the OAS. Currently, the land and sea rights of southern Belize are in dispute, for Guatemala desperately wants greater access to Caribbean trading networks.
For more info: A 1961 US State Department International Boundary Study of Belize and Guatemala provides interesting historical background to the issue (not to mention a Cold War perspective on a part of a region- Latin America- that figured prominently in the early 1960s geopolitical game between the US and the Soviet Union)
#14 – Guyana-Venezuela border dispute
Primary Belligerents: Guyana vs. Venezuela
The discovery of oil in the Western Guyanese region of the Essequibo has reignited a dispute with Venezuela over the sovereignty of nearly half of Guyanese-controlled territory. Adding to this dispute is the fact that Hugo Chavez took a conciliatory approach towards the dispute, permitting continued Guyanese control over the area. However, the rising Venezuelan opposition- which opposes such territorial acquiescence- may work to change the country’s policy if they ever get in power.
For more info: A 2002 assessment of the longstanding border dispute provides further historical background to recent developments.
#13 – TIPNIS (Bolivia)
Primary Belligerents: Indigenous groups vs. Bolivian government
TIPNIS stands for the Indigenous Territory and National Park of Isiboro-Secure. Located in Northeastern Bolivia, it is home to many indigenous peoples in the tropical/Amazonian region of the country. The southern section of the park has been threatened by deforestation and natural gas drilling. A related problem has been the uproar over the proposal by indigenous Bolivian President Evo Morales to build a highway through the park, which led to legislation specifically banning such development in the territory.
For more info: A thesis exploring the political issues central to the TIPNIS conflict.
#12 – Favela pacification (Brazil)
Primary Belligerents: Brazilian State/Municipalities (Rio de Janeiro) vs. Comando Vermelho, Amigos dos Amigos (favela drug gangs)
On the eve of the World Cup and the Olympics, Rio de Janeiro is trying to contain its notoriously violent slum neighborhoods (favelas). The local government there has implemented Pacifying Police Units (UPPs) to provide security and social services in these neighborhoods in an attempt to reclaim territory from gangs and drug traffickers. The program has been successful, even on less-anticipated fronts. In particular, increased state presence in the favelas has resulted in greater tax receipts in these troubled precincts, for favela residents do not feel as much extortion pressures from gangs, cartels, etc. and thus are less motivated to engage in tax evasion. That being said, years of corruption and abuse on the part of local police means that this program, while showing a reduction in violence thus far, has a long way to go in the eyes of the very people it is meant to protect.
#11 – Providencia, San Andres Islands dispute
Primary Belligerents: Nicaragua vs. Colombia
In 1928, Nicaragua signed a treaty with Colombia giving Bogotá a large chunk of maritime control over the waters of the Southwest Caribbean thanks to granting ownership of the Providencia-San Andres archipelago. Nicaragua has argued before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) that the treaty is invalid due to US “occupation” during that time. Recently, the court has decided to side with Nicaragua. It has also created a difficult political situation ahead for the two countries; by giving two of the islands within now-Nicaraguan territorial waters to Colombia, resident fishermen may now be exposed to different, unkind laws that could further increase tensions with an already upset Colombia.
For more info: ICJ documents about the case can be found here.
#10 – Huaorani vs. multinational oil companies (Ecuador)
Primary Belligerents: Huaorani people vs. Chevron
The Huaorani are an indigenous people in the Amazonian section of Ecuador. While they have been beneficiaries of Ecuador’s progressive policies towards indigenous rights, winning claims to live in the protected Yasuni National Park, they face a serious non-governmental foe in multinational oil companies. As a petrostate, oil is an economic lifeblood for Ecuador, and its greatest reserves are in the Amazonian territory of peoples like the Huaorani. A mix of aggressive production processes and environmental sensitivity has led to significant damages for the Huaorani and their homeland due to drilling. The Huaorani have fought back fiercely- both physically and through official/political channels. Recently the indigenous people’s won a long-fought legal victory in US courts against one of the largest offenders: Chevron (Texaco).
For more info: Overview of the Ecuadorian government’s initiative to protect Yasuni.
#9 – Colombia-Venezuela tensions
Primary Belligerents: Colombia vs. Venezuela
As mentioned above, the “Andean Diplomatic Crisis” was exacerbated by Venezuelan entry into the dispute. In 2009, Venezuela cut off diplomatic relations with Colombia after Bogotá accused the Chavez regime of supplying military equipment to the FARC. This later led to a minor military confrontation on the border and the capture of a Colombian soldier. A potential smoking gun connecting Chavez to the FARC was later presented as evidence to the OAS; however, since the evidence (laptops) was recovered in Ecuador, the case was weakened and they were later returned to the Ecuadorian government. Relations only improved after the inauguration of a new Colombian president (Juan Manuel Santos), who successfully set out to promote trade between the two countries. What remains to be seen is the evolution of Colombia-Venezuela relations in a post-Chavez landscape.
For more info: Articles (in Spanish) about acting Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s Colombian roots and the fight he’s picked with former Colombian president (and former Chavez adversary) Alvaro Uribe via twitter.
#8 – The Surui (Brazil)
Primary Belligerents: Surui people vs. outsiders (Brazilian state, multinational corporations, etc.)
An indigenous people in Western Brazil, the Surui were “uncontacted” by the outside world 50 years ago. Now, their Chief, Almir Narayamoga Surui, is fighting the intrusive forces of government and multinational conglomerates via technology and an aggressive international lobbying campaign. This story is one of many from modern-day Amazonia, a region struggling to maintain the traditional nature while taking advantage of its abundant resources for global benefit.
For more info: Overview of Almir Narayamoga Surui’s plans to have productive engagement with the outside world, with a focus on financially empowering the indigenous group.
#7 – Falkland Islands Dispute
#6 – Aves Island dispute
Primary Belligerents: Venezuela vs. Dominica, the Netherlands
This is a multi-regional dispute that has huge maritime territorial implications for one of its claimants- Venezuela, which would consequently control most of the South Caribbean thanks to the rules of the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS). Like all interesting and obscure disputes, this one revolves around a piece of land that is insignificantly small (and, in this case, is apparently eroding, to the apprehension of Venezuela). The island nation of Dominica also has claims to the land/water, as does the colonial power of the Netherlands, whose Caribbean island holdings (Curacao, Bonaire, Saba, St. Martin) form the basis for their claim. While this dispute is quite for now, any discovery of oil or other significant resources/commodities would quickly reignite these claims over a significant swath of the Caribbean Sea.
#5 – Ecuador-Colombia tensions
Primary Belligerents: Colombia (President Alvaro Uribe) vs. Ecuador (President Rafael Correa) and Hugo Chavez
In 2008, Colombian armed forces entered Ecuadorian territory as part of a mission to attack rebels from the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), which has engaged in destabilizing violence against the state in Colombia for decades. Following the “invasion,” a diplomatic crisis ensued with Ecuador (supported by Venezuela) withdrawing their ambassador. The threat of war seemed more imminent when Presidents Rafael Correa (Ecuador) and Hugo Chavez (Venezuela) were accused of collaborating with the FARC. Only after interventions by the Organization of American States (OAS- a UN-type multinational organization for the Western Hemisphere), former US President Jimmy Carter, and Latin rock star Juanes were relations restored, war averted, and the “Andean Diplomatic Crisis” effectively put to rest. Recent discoveries of FARC bases within Ecuador have also helped to justify the then-controversial Colombian military operation. What remains to be seen is the policy effect of Hugo Chavez death on one of his fellow leftists: Rafael Correa. Given its history of closeness with the oft-despised United States, Colombia’s perceived aggression is an easy scapegoat in a region in transition politically towards left-wing, US-skeptical neo-populism.
For more info: Analysis of the legal issues that faced Colombia pre- and post-invasion, showing how fighting non-state actors in an area without well-defined/defensable borders (the Amazon) can be exceptionally difficult for states.
#4 – Argentina’s Debt Problem
Primary Belligerents: Argentine Government vs. Capital Markets/Investors
Since defaulting on its debt in 2002, Argentina has been the pariah of capital markets and has faced staggering borrowing costs and capital controls. Currently, the country is facing a serious legal battle in US courts over what it is to pay foreign creditors (particularly hedge funds). The firm line held by President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner (which consists of issuing bonds instead of paying cash- a risky form of payment for the creditors given Argentina’s history of default) could evaporate any faith the markets have regained in the country since her government has seriously tackled/reduced Argentina’s foreign debt burden. This could lead to another economic crisis in Argentina, the second in 15 years for one of the largest economies in Latin America. Already, protests at one of the litigant’s offices show that the Argentine government’s defiance of investors has some political support, a concerning development for the future growth potential of a potentially prosperous part of Latin America. Such a populist stance, as well as Argentina’s proximity and relationships with two emerging market economies (Brazil and Chile) as well as greater regional trade integration (e.g. Mercosur membership) could- if unchecked- spook investors into worries of South American debt contagion in the future. Given the stock market’s keen eye on sovereign financial stability in Europe, this is not as far-fetched idea as it once was, and Argentina’s history of previous default only increases such intense scrutiny further.
#3 – FARC peace process fallout
Primary Belligerents: Colombian Government/paramilitaries vs. Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) vs. local residents
The Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), has terrorized the Colombian people and disrupted the sovereignty of the Colombian government over much of its territory for many years. The administration of President Alvaro Uribe, however, proved to be a decisive turning point in favor of state forces. Although the tactics of the Uribe administration were harsh (and caused a diplomatic row- see Andean Diplomatic Crisis below), the FARC was greatly weakened and the stage was set for the current peace negotiations. Now, the issue for the government is how to properly administer land reform in the conflict’s former front-line territories, a monumental task that is fraught with painful political implications.
For more info: International Crisis Group has a whole section of its website dedicated to the conflict in Colombia.
#2 – Instability in Central America (Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala)
Primary Belligerents: Drug traffickers/gangs, corrupt public officials vs. the people of these countries
Much like the current conflict in Mexico above, many Central American states are facing dangerous increases in violence due in large part to drug cartel competition resulting from restricted trafficking pipelines. Of the states in Central America affected by this destabilizing decrease in security, three stand out: Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala.
- Honduras just might fall within the category of failed states right now, and it is by far the state with the largest degree of instability in the region. It has the highest murder rate in the world, it faces pressure from drug cartels and its government has been a model of corrupt instability (as evidenced by the bizarre coup overthrowing then President Manuel Zelaya in 2009). In particular, widespread distrust of police forces (many of whom are correctly suspected of being allied with cartels and gangs) has significantly eroded public trust in institutions of social order, a worrying challenge for the international community and the Honduran people as they struggle to improve the security situation.
- El Salvador and Guatemala are not far behind in their contemporary experiences with crippling violence that is decaying social trust; both of these states suffered under long, bloody civil wars during the end of the Cold War.
- Much like its neighbor Honduras, El Salvador is the home of powerful and violent gangs like MS-13 (although a 2012 truce between gangs may reduce crime levels significantly). However, since 2009 the political situation in that country has become more promising thanks to the election of Mauricio Funes from the FMLN party, a former guerrilla coalition during the civil war turned left-wing political party. The Funes election represented a re-balancing of power away from the more right-wing ARENA party, which had won national elections in El Salvador since the end of the civil war (20 years).
- Guatemala, on the other hand is still facing the aftermath of a brutal civil war in which human rights (especially of indigenous groups) were mercilessly tread upon. Recent examples of Guatemala’s painful post-civil war political recovery include the genocide accusations of now President Otto Perez Molina and the death of attorney Rodrigo Rosenberg after he filmed a video explicitly accusing former President Alvaro Colom of his future assassination.
For more info: A foreign correspondents on-the-ground, first person perspective of the violence in Honduras. and a background on the career and election of Otto Perez in Guatemala
#1 – Mexico
Primary Belligerents: Mexican State vs. warring cartels (Zetas, Sinaloa, Gulf, La Familia, Tijuana, Juarez Cartels fighting each other)
This is an ongoing security issue which first erupted in 2006. Brutal murderous tactics used by wealthy, powerful smuggling organizations reflect several forces at work, including:
- The fall from political dominance of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which had ruled Mexico like a 1-party state from 1920s-2000. Many of the criminal organizations in the current conflict had tacit agreements with the Mexican government under the PRI.
- The success of “Plan Colombia” in reducing drug production in South America. This US government-funded program in part helped to constrain supply lines for drug trafficking, the result being a larger influx of competition (and consequently murders) in Central America and Mexico due to cartels operating in tighter territorial quarters.
- The decisions of Presidents Vicente Fox and Felipe Calderon to crack down on the drug trade. Already adherents to rival (non-PRI) factions, these presidents painted a target on the back of the Mexican regime and brought the police/army squarely into the conflict.
For more info: A well-researched topic, some sources include a look at the cartels as organizations, a comparative analysis of drug conflicts and state governance, and some historical background of drug-fueled conflicts pre-Mexico.