Latin American crime boosts defense spending according to Forecast International

26 June 2018 4 min. read

It’s been over two decades since the end of the brief Cenepa War between Peru and Ecuador over a swath of land situated on the border between the two countries. The conflict marks the last international war fought on Latin American soil, signifying a stability unseen on the region since European colonization.

Internal armed conflict has however been prevalent throughout Latin American history and experienced as a civil war, communist uprisings, dictatorships and more recently in international criminal organizations.

With the region’s longest armed conflict coming to an end with the Colombian Peace Deal in 2016, Latin America will now enter into a new era of relative peace and democracy, outside of Venezuela that is.

Latin America comprises only 4% of the total of the global spend on military and defense spending. According to a recent Forecast International report titled ‘International Military Markets 2016/17’, a factor of why defense spending in Latin America is low is due to a lack of diplomatic or military threats in the region. 

The market analyst and consulting firm identifies that; “Latin American countries are largely at peace with each other. There are a few border disputes that surface from time to time, but not since a 1995 border war between Ecuador and Peru have these disputes created armed conflict.”

Latin American crime boosts defense spending according to Forecast International

The major threat across the region however is international organized crime. Governments across Latin America are increasing their defense spending to reel in the threats from crime which include insurgencies, traffickers and gang violence.

Bill Ostrove, an analyst at Forecast International indicated that these threats are driving the military spending, particularly in countries like Colombia, Peru and Mexico. “Their defense picture is a little bit different than some areas of the world that are more concerned about power projection.”

The shift from internal-armed conflict defense to organized crime fighting has had an impact on the types of weapons needed in the region. As a result, the spend on intelligence and surveillance equipment has become more apparent in recent years. 

“Without major military conflicts, heavy, expensive weapon systems such as fighter jets, tanks and destroyers are not needed by Latin American militaries,” said the Forecast International report.

“Equipment that excels in counterinsurgency and rapid reaction environments will be purchased,” the report states. “Such equipment includes small arms, helicopters, patrol boats, armored vehicles, trucks and communications equipment.” These are all articles necessary for combatting violent crime and drug trafficking, according to the firm.

Is enough being done?

The rise of violent crime in Latin America has been a notion which has gone relatively unaddressed by governments in the region, often preoccupied with vying for political power or fighting insurgencies.

Latin America as a region however has an average of almost three times the global homicide rate, and of the 20 countries globally with the highest murder rates 17 are situated in Latin America. “Organized crime and related illegal economies are a prime driver of violence in Latin America and the Caribbean,” said organized crime research and analysis firm, InSight Crime. 

Just under half of the Latin American military and defense spend comes from Brazil, which has a particular focus on fighting organised crime. The country has been engulfed by a wave of violent crime related to gangs and cartels in the past two years due to the economic downturn and cross-boarder narco-trafficking through the northern Brazilian Amazonian region.

After the recent events involving armed gangs who have been involved in inciting violence across Brazil and allegedly recruiting ex-FARC rebels, the Brazilian government is looking to expand its military spend. 

Aside from Brazil – Colombia, Mexico and Venezuela are the Latin countries where the majority of the violence occurs. These four countries combined account for roughly a quarter of all the murders which occur on the planet. 

These are therefore the places where defense priority is likely to be highest in the coming years. With the new Colombian President Duque being sworn in later this year, and pressure from the US on Mexico, Brazil and Colombia to have an iron fist when it comes to crime, there is little doubt that states will ramp up their spending.

“We’re expecting that sort of steady upswing to continue over the next two years,” Ostrove said. The organization expects spending to reach $64 billion in 2018 and $76 billion by 2022, he added.