Tag Archives: Illicit Networks

Feeding the Beast: Guatemalan Migration

November was a monumental month for United States immigration policy as the Trump Administration made great strides in fulfilling campaign promises to curb immigration. Off-hand remarks by President Donald Trump to reporters during a cabinet meeting revealed he was ending the Diversity Visa Lottery Program which has granted residency to 50,000 immigrants every year since its inception in 1990. The move comes as a response to the New York City terrorist attack of 31 October, in which 8 people were killed as a truck barreled through a busy pedestrian walkway. The vehicle was driven by immigrant Sayfullo Habibullaevic Saipov, an Uzbek that received a Diversity Visa in 2010. Just ten days after the Saipov attack, the State Department announced it would put an end to the Central American Minor (CAM) program, which aids children and young people. CAM, which granted refugee status to some 1,500 minors and eligible family members from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador since 2014, ended within 24 hours of the announcement. Additionally, Democrats in Congress are threatening a shutdown over the elimination of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, yet another measure to protect minors seeking refuge in the United States. Though unilateral initiatives like these may temporarily reduce the rate of legal immigration from volatile regions, they will do nothing to alleviate the economic and security pressures that cause migration in the first place.

Small Countries, Big Problem

Despite the relatively small size of the countries involved, Central American immigration is a significant issue for the United States. In 2015, 3.4 million Central Americans resided there, representing 8% of America’s immigrant population. Of that group, approximately 85% arrived from only three countries: Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras—the area known as the “northern triangle” of    Central America. Guatemala, the closest of the three and the one through which all Central American immigrants must pass, was the largest source country in the region, accounting for 27% all Central American immigrants to the United States in 2013. The rates of immigration have risen steadily in recent years as the economy in the northern triangle deteriorates. United Nations data from 2010 suggests more than half of Guatemalan emigrants left for economic reasons (33.1% to improve their employment conditions and 22.8% to obtain employment). Other top motivators include family reunification (12.3%), and to a lesser extent, concerns about citizen insecurity (2.9%). Poor economic conditions influence the decision to emigrate; lack of access to transportation, basic nutrition, and a level of income that makes it impossible to support families all influence the Guatemalan exodus. Tragically, the less-educated are more likely to make the journey, but less likely to have a real understanding of the risks involved or to have marketable skills that would help them earn more money in the United States. The problem is most pronounced among men; a staggering 47% of male Guatemalan emigrants have only an elementary school education level or less. Unfortunately, ethnicity also plays a factor. The demographic most likely to undertake the journey north is the country’s indigenous poor who account for 41% of the total Guatemalan population.

guatemala migration
The rate of increase in Central American immigration to the US is steady but nonetheless alarming. Data from US Census Bureau American Community Surveys (ACS) in 2006, 2010, and 2015, and Campbell J. Gibson and Kay Jung, “Historical Census Statistics on the Foreign-born Population of the United States: 1850-2000” (Working Paper no. 81, U.S. Census Bureau, Washington, DC, February 2006).

Bilateral relations with the United States are consistently among Central America’s most important foreign policy concerns. But those relations have soured over the past year as populist anti-immigration policies suggested Latin American immigrants present a direct threat to safety and security of American citizens. However distasteful the generalization of Latin Americans may be, the region has earned a reputation for instability since the mid-twentieth century. During the internal armed conflict of Guatemala (1960-1996), violence, political instability, and persecution led a large percentage of Guatemala’s population to seek asylum or refugee status in Mexico and the United States. Following the 1980s and the end of the conflict, political and economic instability subsided, but organized crime, gang violence, and the secondary effects of drug trafficking increased. The causes of Guatemalan emigration may have changed but the exodus continued.

Beauty and The Beast

Guatemala, thanks to its geography and various microclimates, is known as the land of the eternal spring. It is a country with fertile land for agriculture and is rich in coveted trade exports such as coffee and spices. Guatemalans enjoy access to both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, as well as a rich modern and ancestral cultural heritage as the center of the Mayan empire. What makes Guatemala’s situation tragic, however, is the paradox it presents. As is common in Latin America, a colonial past set the conditions for an elite-dominated society with weak institutions. When Guatemala achieved independence in 1821, lands were distributed between criollo families—those of full Spanish descent—endowing them with considerable political power and creating an economic and political class whose descendants manage the country to this day. This elite-dominated political system consistently fails to sustainably exploit the country’s resources, or squanders them through corruption and mismanagement.

For many Guatemalans, the only option is to seek opportunities elsewhere—primarily in the United States. There is an unofficial but well known route that leads from Guatemala into Mexico that then disperses migrants to the many possible entry points along the southern border of the United States. The journey can be a nightmare of hardship and danger, but one that many are willing to endure—a harsh indictment of quality of life in Guatemala. The most infamous leg of the journey involves transport on “the Beast” or “the Death Train”, named for the countless lives and limbs it consumes as migrants attempt to board the moving train in secret. Once aboard the Beast, migrants are vulnerable to grave violations of their human rights throughout their journey. Rape, extortion, kidnapping, and murder are commonplace; committed not only by the illicit agents that traffic migrants, but also by corrupt federal and state authorities whose paths the migrants cross.

Guatemala migration
Worth the risk: migrants sit precariously atop “the Beast” as they make their way north in search of opportunity. Photo credit: https://es.panampost.com/ysol-delgado/2016/08/16/conozca-a-cinco-migrantes-hondurenos-mutilados-por-el-tren-de-la-muerte/

For the Guatemalan migrants that successfully reach the United States, there is no guarantee of steady labor or prosperity. They typically find employment in restaurants, hotels, construction, and as domestic employees. Meanwhile, the are routinely subjected to discrimination and exploitation as they struggle to make minimum wage or worse. Central American immigrants constitute the largest percentage of immigrants working in the service industry, mostly because they lack the education and skills for higher-paying jobs. Despite this, remittances sent to families and loved ones in Guatemala are a crucial part of that nation’s economy. International Organization for Migration (IOM) data suggests that economic prosperity in the United States directly affects poverty rates in Guatemala. For example, the poverty rate in Guatemala rapidly increased after the economic crisis of 2008 and peaked in 2011. Regardless of changes to current immigration policy, the fortunes of the United States and its regional neighbors are inextricably linked.

Shared Problems-Shared Solutions

Despite the cold stance of the current US administration towards Central American migration, there are initiatives in both the United States Government and the international community, particularly the United Nations, aimed at helping migrants. Any person that holds an irregular status can seek assistance through technology-based information applications such as “Ask Immigration” or “MigrantApp,” a pilot program of IOM. These applications provide information about government services and answer questions related to immigration matters without the need for a lawyer or consultant. Western governments also have development programs to help Guatemala’s judiciary deal with the high number of criminals being processed by the courts. Programs like this address the root causes of emigration by contributing to rule of law and civil security, but do not address the dismal state of the economy.

Migration in North America is a regional problem and though international measures do help, success requires an effective United States policy that addresses the causes of immigration, not just its symptoms. The current US administration’s attempt to stifle the flow of migrants at the border by reducing legal immigration simply ignores the cause of the problem and promotes the illusion that the United States can somehow insulate itself from its southern neighbors and their respective domestic shortcomings. For its part, Guatemala and the rest of the Central America must increase job opportunities, strengthen their justice systems, and control illicit networks. Initiatives should be accompanied by social and cultural campaigns to discourage corruption, end discrimination, provide education, and address inequality. The way for Guatemala and the United States to control the flow of migration from the region is to improve the quality of life of those who would be most likely to leave. Comprehensive regional initiatives that strengthen economies and bolster citizen security are the long-term solutions to curb Central American migration and to stop feeding the Beast.


Ligia Lee Guandique is a political analyst living in Guatemala City, Guatemala. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in International Relations and a Master’s degree in Political Science from Latin American institutions. Ligia also has experience working with human rights-based NGOs.

Bolivarian Devolution: The Venezuelan Crisis

This morning nearly 25,000 Venezuelans will cross the Simon Bolivar bridge into Colombia in search of work and a hot meal. Most will return in the evening with extra food for their families if they are lucky. They make the trip hoping to earn money peddling goods on the street, seeking routine medical care, or standing in line for hours to receive one of the thousands of free meals served daily by churches and non-profit organizations. The bridge, a piece of shared infrastructure by which 80% of trade goods pass between the two countries, has become a humanitarian lifeline for those trying to escape the Venezuelan crisis. Recent surveys suggest 93% of Venezuelans cannot afford to purchase food and hospitals there lack 95% of medical supplies needed to provide basic care. The cost of Venezuela’s failed Bolivarian Revolution, a phrase coined by the late President Hugo Chavez, is being paid by the citizens it promised to protect, and the growing spillover into Colombia threatens to turn a Venezuelan problem into a regional one.

The Bolivarian Revolution began rather inauspiciously in 1992 when then-Lieutenant Colonel Hugo Chavez led an unsuccessful military coup to oust the democratically elected president. Released from prison two years later, Chavez went on to win the 1999 election as a populist fringe candidate under a socialist ideology he called “Chavismo”. In a case of extradinarily bad timing, his anointed successor, a former bus driver-turned-Finance Minister by the name Nicholas Maduro, assumed the presidency following Chavez’s death in 2013. Within a year, the global drop in oil prices triggered an economic crisis in Venezuela, catalyzing the failure of the socialist experiment and intensifying social unrest. President Maduro responded to the resultant popular criticism with a heavy hand, using the military to violently suppress protests and working internally to subvert Venezuela’s democratic institutions.

The situation in Venezuela represents a complete reversal of fortunes from two decades ago. Beginning in the 1970s, nearly four million Colombians fled to Venezuela to escape violence and terror wrought by the drug cartels and the FARC. In 1999, the flow of migrants began to steadily reverse, and 1.5 million people have since left Venezuela for Colombia. Two recent events illustrate the ironic role reversal. On the 15th of August, the FARC officially completed a peaceful disarmament process and was incorporated into the Colombian democratic system as a political party. Then, just three days later, the pro-Maduro Constituent Assembly in Venezuela seized control of the opposition-led Congress, removing yet another democratic impediment to his rule. The move sparked regional outrage, but engendered little surprise as the Venezuelan political apparatus moved one step closer to authoritarianism.

Venezuela Devolution
Thousands of Venezuelans line up every morning to cross the Simon Bolivar Bridge to obtain food and basic necessities on the Colombian side. Photo Credit: http://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/article/Thousands-cross-Venezuela-border-to-Colombia-for-8383342.php

Socialist Expropriation and Crime

Venezuela controls some of the world’s largest crude oil reserves, a critical piece in a calculated strategy to safeguard the Chavez regime by distributing wealth. The scheme has been remarkably successful over the last 18 years and is probably the only reason his successor is still in power, but corruption, subjugation of private industry, and ill-fated socialist policies have depleted the nation’s wealth. Upon his election in 1999, Chavez nationalized much of Venezuela’s industry. By 2011 Venezuela was receiving only a $5M share of Latin America’s total $150M in annual foreign investment and the number of private businesses had decreased from 14,000 to roughly 9,000. Oil accounted for 95% of Venezuela’s exports at the time, but the billions of dollars earned in the post-9/11 oil boom have vanished. Most of the money was funneled to political supporters and a large share was invested in strengthening the military.

Four years after Chavez’s death, the question remains whether the military will stay loyal to Maduro, to the Revolution, or abandon them both in favor of the opposition. Maduro’s ability to continue lining the pockets of his generals and politicians dwindles by the day. His support is already weakening in the lower ranks of the military where the effects of the economic crisis are most palpable. Worsening conditions increase the potential for a military uprising against Maduro in favor of a leader more capable of advancing the Chavismo ideology. Considering also the historical influence of Cuba’s Castro regime and ongoing support from Russia and Iran, it stands to reason Chavismo will endure even if Maduro’s political capital dries up.

Command of the lucrative illicit drug trade is also a factor. Throughout the Chavismo era, corrupt politicians profited from the trade by exploiting military and police fealty. The details of their corruption were published almost a decade ago when a seizure of data exposed integrated cocaine distribution networks between Venezuela and the United States. Notably, in 2016 two of Maduro’s nephews were convicted in the US for conspiracy to transport cocaine, suggesting possible ties to the President himself. If indeed Maduro is on the take, the growing scarcity of pay-off funds from other sources raises concern he may lose control over the illicit drug trade, leaving a vacuum that could lead to increased violence, volatility, and regional instability.

All-American Solutions

Despite President Trump’s recent refusal to rule out a “military option” in Venezuela, the United States lacks the domestic and international political capital to impose its will there. Furthermore, his intransigence on immigration and the proposed border wall with Mexico have not earned him additional support in a region where one-third of the population sees American power and influence as a major threat. During a recent Latin American tour, Vice President Mike Pence spent much of his time softening Trump’s message on Venezuela and assuring leaders Washington is open to a wide range of options including economic sanctions. Despite the assurances, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos explicitly rejected the notion of a military response in a joint press conference with Pence, insisting Venezuela’s neighbors must use “other measures to bring about change in the country.” Clearly a more indirect and cooperative approach will be required if the United States wishes to influence the situation in Venezuela.

Venezuelan Crisis
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos addresses the Colombian press during a joint conference with US VP Mike Pence. Despite the positive state of US-Colombia relations, President Santos emphatically rejected the US military option that President Trump mentioned the week prior to the visit. Photo credit: http://www.infobae.com/america/america-latina/2017/08/14/juan-manuel-santos-le-pidio-a-estados-unidos-descartar-una-posible-intervencion-militar-en-venezuela/

Despite President Santos’ strong stance, there is no reason to believe Latin America is capable of responding effectively on its own. Any admonishments of Maduro’s despotism by Venezuela’s neighbors are tempered by their own dogmatic respect for state sovereignty; a common paradox in a region composed of weak states with strong leaders. Additionally, domestic political concerns consume nearly every country in the region. Brazil is embroiled in its own government scandal and focused on economic and political instability. Argentina is still nursing an economic recovery after years of fiscal mismanagement under the Kirchners. Colombia is coming to terms with a difficult peace agreement with FARC revolutionaries and wants to keep growing economically. Chile, despite being an economic growth leader for a decade, has yet to truly find its voice in regional politics and continues to struggle with domestic political impediments. As is characteristic of Latin America, there is a lot of talk, but no coherent regional stance.

Throughout Latin America, citizens are bracing for the political and economic effects of an influx of Venezuelans seeking work, housing, and social assistance. Violent civil war is a concern, as is the resurgence of illicit transnational networks—a trend that had been on the decline in recent years thanks to progress in neighboring Colombia. A US military intervention would most certainly exacerbate existing regional security challenges. The only sustainable solution to this Bolivarian Devolution rests on the ability of Latin American states to look beyond their respective domestic challenges and respond with an uncharacteristic level of regional cohesion. To enable such a response, the United States should pursue collaborative regional solutions focused on mitigating the economic and social impacts of the growing humanitarian crisis.


The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not reflect the views of any  government or private institution.

Major Patrick “TISL” Parrish is the Blogmaster and editor for the Affiliate Network. He is a US Air Force Officer and A-10C Weapons Instructor Pilot with combat tours in Afghanistan and Libya. He is currently serving as an Olmsted Scholar in Santiago, Chile.

Major Kirby “Fuel” Sanford is a US Air Force Officer and F-16 Instructor Pilot with combat experience in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. He is currently serving as an Olmsted Scholar in Buenos Aires, Argentina. 

Stealth Wealth: ISIL and the Myth of Oil

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has established itself as an extremely powerful jihadist army in the heart of the Middle East. The group is well armed, commanding a vehicle fleet that includes 2300 High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicles (HMMWV) and countless others along with enough weaponry and soldiers to manage a “state” of 300,000 square kilometers (roughly the size of Italy). ISIL is not just powerful, it is well funded. The group is reportedly so wealthy some members of the United States Government, without any apparent fear of hyperbole, repeatedly describe ISIL as the “best funded terrorist group in history” with oil as its main source of affluence.

The narrative is an attractive one. A wealthy terrorist group is novel and alarming. Fighting it requires new methods, new powers, and indeed new budgets. But it seems infeasible for the so-called Islamic State to accumulate wealth by selling functionally useless crude oil or poorly-refined petroleum products a truckload at a time. Survival alone must be very expensive indeed while under constant armed assault by a US-led coalition of 65 countries, along with Syria, Russia (arguably), Iran, and countless rival groups including the very capable Hezbollah. This gives credence to reports that some Sunni Arab states (allies of the United States) look the other way while their prominent citizens support the group.  Whatever the case, the mainstream media seems unwilling to question the narrative of ISIL’s oil riches.  The numbers however, do not support this idea.

Unbalancing the Books

Estimating ISIL’s oil revenue is complex and based largely on assumptions and derived intelligence but is useful for making the point that the group will have great difficulty profiting from the sale of stolen petroleum.

A generous estimate put ISIL’s February 2015 production capacity at 50,000 barrels per day (bpd). With a market price of $10 a barrel according to one Iraqi official, ISIL could theoretically make $15 million a month. But there is more to the story. ISIL does not control a single pipeline from origin to destination meaning they require 181 standard tanker trucks just to move all that oil, a very inefficient and expensive transportation method. Standard trucks of this type would require roughly four barrels of diesel just to make the 800-mile round trip from Kirkuk to Raqqah. That is 724 barrels per day ($217,000 per month) just to deliver to potential customers.

But ISIL needs fuel as well. A large percentage of ISIL’s estimated production would be consumed by 2300 HMMWVs, hundreds of armored vehicles, likely tens of thousands of civilian cars and trucks, heavy machinery for construction and survivability, generators, and heaters. With only about 70% of refined petroleum products useful for those purposes, ISIL’s for-sale inventory is down to somewhere in the neighborhood of 30,000 bpd. Subtract another 10% for likely corruption, loss, fuel contamination due to mishandling, and inefficiencies from distributed and improvised refining, that is 27,000 bpd before accounting for a single action by any of ISIL’s many enemies.

The Myth of ISIL's Oil
“Crude Stills:” A field refinery used by ISIL to process crude oil into useable forms such as diesel and kerosene.

All the same, 27,000 bpd is worth $8.1 million per month; not a paltry sum, but a far cry from the $50 million bonanza the United States estimates ISIL earns monthly from oil sales. It is also only one half of the equation. Though ISIL’s monthly expenditure is beyond the scope of this article, we must remember that its army of tens of thousands of soldiers is a very expensive commodity to operate. Those soldiers must be recruited, fed, paid, housed, equipped, armed, and trained. The wounded require expensive medicines to heal or keep healthy and their families must be compensated upon their deaths. If we compare these priorities with appropriation titles in the budget of the United States Army, we find that similar expenses account for 91.8% of the total US Army budget. Assuming ISIL has similar combat priorities, it is clear $8.1 million will not go very far.

Groupthink, Bureaucracy, and Confusion

If strained production capacity, distributed and inefficient refining, expensive distribution infrastructure, extremely high operating costs, and a questionable customer base are not enough to break ISIL’s bank, enemy action certainly will.  Unfortunately, there is a political rUntitledeason we keep hearing tales of the group’s fabulous riches. Since the Obama Administration began perpetuating the myth of ISIL’s oil wealth in August 2014, bureaucrats and generals have used the idea as a foundation for action. As early as September 2014, the Department of the Treasury sought authorities to target ISIL’s bank accounts and those of its financial backers while the State Department lobbied to block donations to ISIL from  citizens of Gulf Cooperation Council countries. Meanwhile, the Pentagon went after the group’s oil infrastructure, most notably in an effort to retake the Bayji refinery complex. Though this seems a refreshingly comprehensive approach to a complex problem, these agencies carried it out in the context of bureaucratic competition, particularly when diplomacy constrained military options or when bombing annoyed regional allies and complicated negotiations over the Iran nuclear deal. Yet amid the bureaucratic maneuvering, none were willing to question the attractive but invalid assertion that ISIL was making a lot of money…Until Vladimir Putin agreed with them.

Following the downing of a Russian fighter aircraft by the Turkish Air Force, Russia produced photo evidence accusing Turkey of being the primary consumer of ISIL’s stolen oil.  The Russian photos even implicated the family of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the trade. Despite their ambiguity, the allegations are troublesome for the mantra underpinning the policies of the United States, NATO, Turkey, and a number of other outwardly anti-ISIL stakeholders. The response from the United States came from special envoy and coordinator for international energy affairs, Amos Hochstein, who said that ISIL’s oil sales to Turkey are of “no significance from a volume [or revenue] perspective” and that most consumers are in ISIL-controlled areas of Syria and Iraq. Bizarrely, other US officials even questioned ISIL’s production capacity, pointing out that the group refines its stolen oil in “ad hoc desert pits equipped with crude stills”. Suddenly Washington was further complicating an already confusing policy by qualifying its previously bold statements about ISIL’s oil wealth.

The Cost of the Myth

Maintaining the myth of ISIL oil wealth was always an operational liability, incorrectly informing policy and improperly shaping decisions on the use of national power. It is now clear the tortured logic required to maintain the fiction is an international political liability as well and it is time for the United States and its allies to face facts and abandon the groupthink. ISIL is not enjoying a massive windfall from the sale of oil and instead is waging a successful war with more intractable sources of funding including possible covert sponsorship from some of America’s less scrupulous Sunni allies. Until Washington is willing to face the reality of ISIL’s oil wealth, those “allies” will enjoy political cover to support the Islamic State and Mr. Putin will continue to use America’s own rhetoric against it.

Lino Miani

Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC