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Mercosur mulls focus on arms suppliers to fight crime, trafficking

Nov. 28, 2011 at 3:59 PM   |   Comments

MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay, Nov. 28 (UPI) -- Latin America's increasingly ambitious Mercosur regional bloc is aiming to focus on small arms suppliers who are seen as being behind the region's endemic and seemingly insurmountable problem of violent crime.

The area's disparate armed groups, guerrillas with political agenda and drug-related gangs have drawn attention from Mercosur's watchdog committees as senior officials explore ways of containing organized crime, rooting out myriad networks that combine militancy, narcotics and people smuggling, extortion and urban and rural crime.

Meeting in the Uruguayan capital, interior and security ministers and security officials from Mercosur member countries complained there was insufficient coordination and exchange of critical information, which left the region exposed to deadly and resourceful organized crime gangs and their networks.

Latin American nations, aided by U.S. and U.N. agencies, have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on combating crime, trafficking in drugs and people. Critics say the results aren't impressive.

Years of trafficking to North America have enriched and empowered crime gangs to such an extent that an increasingly sophisticated delivery of drugs and people to lucrative destinations, such as North America, is commonplace. Caribbean and European destinations are being targeted, intelligence data indicated.

A series of recent crackdowns on the crime gangs in Colombia, Mexico and Central America led to the criminal organizations diversifying their operations in the Caribbean region, giving under resourced law enforcement agencies new challenges.

Analysts said the countermeasures were hindered by the criminal gangs' elaborate networks that compromised governments, law enforcement agencies and any organization that rose to try and beat the problem. The gangs use bribery, intimidation, kidnapping and murder to pursue consolidation goals.

The Mercosur ministers' lament of inadequate information exchanges within the region showed law enforcement work lagged behind the lawbreakers' resilient networks, known to have infiltrated both public- and private-sector organizations that are supposed to be fighting the threat.

Argentina, which has the rotating leadership of Mercosur for the first half of 2012, itself is riven by sophisticated criminal networks the government has struggled to control.

Argentine Public Security Minister Nilda Garre vowed to make intelligence sharing work while Argentina headed the regional group through the first half of next year. Mercosur includes countries that face drug and gun crime with varying intensity -- founding members Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay and associate members Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru. Venezuela, awaiting full-member status, has one of the highest crime and homicide rates in the world, much of it related to drugs.

Garre said Mercosur, under an Argentine presidency, would initiate a "regional diagnosis" on the crisis in largely uncontrolled drug and people smuggling and related crime. The investigation would include a closer look at the arms trade, Garre said.

Critics want Latin American governments to target suppliers, including countries that manufacture the weapons.

"Crime networks have become true international corporations," Garre said.

The problem has moved to the top of political agenda in Brazil as the government of President Dilma Rousseff struggles to brush up the country's image -- and make the cities safer -- before the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Olympics.

Critics say Mercosur's plans to target the arms manufacturers are ambitious and impractical and may lead to diplomatic complications. Likewise, there has been little enthusiasm in Brazil over government plans to promote a voluntary disarmament of civilians. Argentinean officials want to promote a wider version of their national campaign, "You have a gun, you have a problem." Critics say that even in Argentina that movement hasn't gone beyond lofty rhetoric.

Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner will take over Mercosur's presidency Dec. 20 from Uruguayan President Jose Mujica when the group reconvenes in Montevideo.

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