The recent elections in Chile and Honduras have showed the wide span of outcomes that we’ve come to expect out of Latin America, with Chile peacefully putting a business-friendly former president back in office, and Honduras suffering violence after the contested re-election of a sitting leader. What both victors have in common, however, will be a more difficult regional security environment in 2018. Between several additional upcoming elections and underlying volatility, the private sector will also need to take note.
Latin American Elections and Uncertainty
The primary challenge for Latin America in 2018 will be the sheer number of crucial elections, and their consequences. The powerhouse markets of Mexico, Brazil, and Colombia are having presidential contests or transitions this year, but so are Venezuela, Cuba, Paraguay, and Costa Rica (the latter already in progress). To be sure, each election carries with it the risks of violent demonstrations and protests, as recently shown by the Honduras example. Furthermore, the winners of each contest (whether democratic or not) will get to determine policy direction and effectiveness on many issues crucial to country security, including investment in local law enforcement, anti-corruption efforts, and the battle against drug-trafficking.
Beyond these local factors, however, security professionals need to consider the two broader, systemic factors that are likely to worsen regional security, regardless of each individual result:
- Too many newcomers – no matter who wins, the very fact that Latin America may have up to seven new leaders should be a cause for concern. Even with political credentials, new country leaders will be untested on the national scale and may not have a playbook for security crisis situations. They may also not have the established institutional relationships both inside and outside their countries, to work through difficult policy arenas pertaining to security
- Radical candidates – not all the presidential contenders are radical, but some of the leading contenders are. Most notably, leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador is leading the polls in Mexico, while Jair Bolsonaro is now ahead of the pack in a contentious race in Brazil. Venezuela and Cuba, meanwhile, are almost guaranteed to remain steadfastly in the authoritarian camp. The possibility that even a few of the democratic victors will steer their country in far-left or far-right directions heightens the uncertainty of the “newcomers” issue. Will these victors cooperate in the same way on security threats with the U.S. and their neighbors? Or might they find it more advantageous to align with other experienced yet radical leaders in the region. And how will they tackle emerging security risks?
Challenging Conditions and Existing Volatility
What makes the challenges above especially worrying is the fact that there are already several slow- and fast-moving crises facing the region. The question, therefore, is not whether a slew of new presidents will have to face a uniquely difficult environment, but how they will deal with existing conditions. The following are among the most important:
- Record-high crime in key markets – the statistics for 2017 are in and Mexico has beaten all of its previously recorded figures for the number of homicides in the country. Of course, Mexico’s per capita murder rate is still lower than that of the other major Latin American market, Brazil
- International realignments and interference – geopolitical shifts facing the region are the greatest they have been in years. Whilst the rhetoric and actions of U.S. political leadership are creating distance with many Latin American counterparts, China is doubling down on investment in Latin America and Russia is reportedly stepping into the vacuum as well. In the case of Mexico, Russia is said to be interfering in the election itself. What will these trends mean for security cooperation and intel-sharing with the U.S.?
- The fate of Venezuela – to paraphrase Mark Twain, the rumors of Venezuela’s demise have been greatly exaggerated for several years now. Despite being seemingly on the brink of regime collapse, president Nicolas Maduro has managed to retain power. Yet the social and economic undercurrents will continue to weather down his regime’s power. The question of serious instability is not an if, but a when
- The future of FARC in Colombia – following a painstaking peace process curated by Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) rebel group finally laid down its arms in 2016. The peace has been exceptionally fragile, however, and earlier in February the group stated it would be boycotting October’s elections. The incoming president may still have to feud with the FARC
Considerations for Private Sector Security
Ongoing deterioration of Latin America’s security environment has not forced corporate security planners and managers to re-evaluate their strategies in the region. Crime and kidnappings, the argument goes, are nothing new in Mexico and Brazil, and still disproportionately affects local companies. This view may foster complacency in a year that could have transformative impact rather than just operational implications. The 2018 elections should induce private sector businesses to consider the worst possible outcomes and re-align their strategies for protection of physical assets and personnel accordingly.
Daniil Davydoff is Manager of Global Security Intelligence at AT-RISK International. His team sheds light on country and regional risk issues to help companies reformulate security planning and strategies.
Glenn Sandford is the Director of Operations for Latin America at AT-RISK International. He is responsible for all facets of projects in the region and for helping to ensure complete client satisfaction. Mr. Sandford has been living and working in Latin America since 2010.