Where are Latin America’s Terrorists?

WASHINGTON, DC – The Colombian army’s killing of Alfonso Cano, head of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), will not eliminate that country’s largest guerrilla group anytime soon. But it does partly illustrate why international terrorism has not established a major presence in Latin America. Local security forces, bolstered by generous American assistance, have made the region a difficult place for foreign terrorists to set up operational cells – and other conditions also help to make Latin America less vulnerable.

One reason why the FARC has survived repeated blows to its leadership is the support that it receives from various groups, perhaps including government officials, in neighboring Ecuador and Venezuela. Fortunately, this backing appears to have declined in the last year or so, following improvement in Colombia’s relations with these countries.

Another factor contributing to the FARC’s survival has been its transformation over the years from a revolutionary organization into a narco-terrorist group that uses violence to support its criminal operations. Many former terrorist and insurgent groups in the region have undergone similar transformations over the last two decades.

These groups, some with transnational reach, mostly engage in narcotics trafficking, arms smuggling, and kidnapping. At worst, they sometimes employ terrorist tactics (commonly defined as violence that deliberately targets civilians). In Colombia, the FARC and the National Liberation Army (ELN) finance their operations through drug trafficking, kidnapping, and extortion. These groups might kill civilians, but their main targets are the police and security personnel who threaten their activities.