Monthly Risk Spotlight: April 2024


Increased Violence in Latin America’s Traditionally Safer Countries
The collapse of the government in Haiti is serving to highlight some of the more extreme gang violence that has occurred and increased in the region. It helps to take a step back and look at how other countries in the region, particularly Costa Rica and Ecuador, two countries that were considered some of the safest in the region, have addressed this increased level of organized crime. Costa Rica and Ecuador, long considered stable democracies with low crime rates, have recently experienced a surge in organized criminal activities, resulting in a major increase in violent crime rates. In Costa Rica, the violent crime rate surged over 40% in 2023 alone. In January 2024, Ecuador experienced a highly volatile security situation where gang members conducted several targeted operations including, but not limited to, detonating improvised explosive devices (IEDs) across the country and breaking out notorious gang leader, Adolfo Macias, from prison. Following his release, Macias orchestrated a series of chaotic and deadly exchanges with the security services predominantly in Guayaquil. The most notorious incident was epitomized by the gang members storming the local television station and taking several hostages whilst broadcasting live. This prompted local authorities to declare a local state of emergency to curb the violence. More recently, authorities have been able to bring about some semblance of normalcy to Guayaquil, though Macias remains at large.

Illegal factors can possibly explain why this surge of violence has taken place in what were traditionally considered safer countries. As countries like El Salvador and Peru disrupt the drug trade and crack down on transnational criminal organizations (TCOs; ‘cartels’) activity in their respective countries, cartels are forced to pivot and move operations to countries that have weaker security forces, allowing them to operate more freely. In the case of Costa Rica and Ecuador, two countries where the drug trade had typically not been present, the security forces were ill-equipped and lacked training on how to deal with well-funded and highly organized cartels. Consequently, both Costa Rica and Ecuador are in the process of recruiting and training hundreds of new police officers and are increasing the budget for the security forces, coupled with request training and equipment from American and European partners. This rapid increase in security forces, and the desire to implement sterner measures to tackle this increased insecurity, has attracted staunch criticism by domestic and international entities. Many deem that these changes are detrimental to long-held political and human rights traditions, prompting domestic political debates that have led to growing instability.

Moreover, the political environments in both Costa Rica and Ecuador have deteriorated in recent years due to increased criminal activity. Political parties in both countries have become more radical, with both Costa Rica and Ecuador electing more conservative, tough-on-crime, politicians who plan to loosen traditional constitutional protections previously favored by traditionally more liberal administrations. As a result, the political atmosphere in both Costa Rica and Ecuador is changing; there are fears that the policies and traditions that kept both Costa Rica and Ecuador as politically stable stalwarts in Latin America may be in jeopardy.

This national debate is not unique to Costa Rica and Ecuador, but all nations in the hemisphere that are dealing with powerful TCOs within their borders. The debate seems to be firmly shifting towards the loss of individual liberties as a worthy sacrifice to contain the growing instability caused by organized crime.


The United States (U.S.) and its Diplomatic Presence in Libya
The decision of the U.S. to reinstate a diplomatic presence in Libya marks a significant milestone, coming a decade after the evacuation of the U.S. Embassy in the capital Tripoli during the civil strife that impacted the country. The formal notification of the U.S. Department of State to Congress initiates a process expected to take one to two years to establish an interim diplomatic facility in Tripoli. Since the evacuation in 2014, American diplomats have been operating remotely from Malta and Tunisia, respectively.

The proposed facility, situated in Tripoli’s western suburbs, is intended to enable more frequent and prolonged engagement with Libyan stakeholders. Despite not being a formal embassy, the establishment of such a facility underscores the commitment of the U.S. to enhance its presence amidst ongoing efforts to stabilize Libya and support United Nations (UN)-led initiatives for future elections and stability. However, political sensitivities persist, particularly among some House Republicans, influenced by the 2012 Benghazi attack and the current state of security in Libya.

In February 2024, armed groups in Tripoli agreed to vacate the city, making way for regular forces, according to the country’s Interior Minister, Imad Trabelsi. The agreement, reached after a series of deadly clashes, will see various security groups, including but not limited to; Brigade 111, Brigade 444, the General Security Force, the Special Deterrence Force, and the Stability Support Authority, leave Tripoli. These groups, which emerged after the 2011 revolution, operated independently and controlled checkpoints and intersections, often engaging in violent clashes. Libya has been plagued by conflict and political instability since the uprising, with a division between the Tripoli-based government and an eastern-based administration helmed by General Khalifa Haftar.

The U.S. Department of State emphasizes meticulous planning and coordination with Congress to ensure the safety and effectiveness of diplomatic operations. The chosen location, Palm City, is considered the ‘Green Zone’ of Tripoli like the ‘Green Zone’ in Baghdad, and offers strategic advantages, including proximity to the Mediterranean in case of rapid evacuations. The initiative also addresses the growing influence of Russia in the country, exemplified by the presence of Wagner Group operatives and Russia’s recent diplomatic maneuvers to stake a foothold in Libya and gain influence over the-wider-region.

The lack of a physical presence has hindered U.S. oversight and engagement with local actors, prompting the need to reinstate diplomatic operations. With Russia actively advancing its interests in Libya, the U.S. aims to counterbalance its influence and safeguard long-term security interests. The budget request for fiscal year 2025 allocates funds for embassy operations and diplomatic security, underscoring the strategic importance of the initiative. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken highlights the broader implications of maintaining access and influence across the Maghreb region, particularly in light of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)’s southern flank. The decision to reopen the embassy reaffirms the U.S. commitment to address regional challenges and support stability efforts, notwithstanding ongoing security concerns.

The decision to reopen the embassy signifies a strategic shift in U.S. foreign policy towards Libya and the broader North African region. As diplomatic negotiations progress, the U.S. administration must navigate complex geopolitical dynamics while advancing its interests and ensuring stability in Libya. This move will reflect a proactive approach to addressing challenges in the region and reaffirm the U.S. commitment to global leadership and security.


Earthquake in the Republic of China (ROC; Taiwan) Underscores Adverse Impact and Disruption
The earthquake on April 3 in Taiwan, with a magnitude of 7.2, has once again highlighted the island’s vulnerability to natural disasters, given its geological position at the junction of two tectonic plates. This event is the most significant seismic activity to strike Taiwan in the past 25 years, resulting in nine fatalities, over 900 injuries, and considerable infrastructural damage in Hualien County, near the epicenter. The disaster prompted a swift response from local authorities and international allies, underlining Taiwan’s preparedness and resilience in the face of such calamities.

The immediate impact of the earthquake was significant, with the destruction of residential buildings, disruption of transportation, and temporary suspension of operations at key facilities, including Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. (TSMC), a critical player in the global semiconductor supply chain. However, the rapid response from the government, the deployment of emergency services, and the community’s solidarity exemplify Taiwan’s robust disaster response mechanisms, refined by past experiences with earthquakes and other natural disasters.

The strategic implications of this event for Taiwan are multifaceted. Firstly, Taiwan’s effective disaster response and management, along with its ability to quickly resume critical operations, such as those at TSMC, reinforce the island’s image as a resilient and stable entity in the Asia-Pacific region. This resilience is crucial not only for Taiwan’s domestic stability, but also for maintaining confidence among international partners and investors, especially in sectors critical to global supply chains like semiconductors.

Secondly, the earthquake underscores the importance of international cooperation and support in times of crisis. The positive responses and offers of assistance from countries like the U.S. not only highlight Taiwan’s strategic relationships, but also its geopolitical significance. Such support bolsters Taiwan’s international standing, albeit in the context of disaster response, at a time when it faces increasing pressure and military threats from the People’s Republic of China (PRC; China).

Furthermore, the disaster has a dual significance in the context of Taiwan’s relations with China. On one hand, natural disasters could offer a rare avenue for humanitarian cooperation between the two nations, which could potentially assist in the easing of tensions. Conversely, the island’s preparedness and resilience, as demonstrated by its response to the earthquake, signal to China and the international community that Taiwan is capable of managing significant crises, reinforcing its sovereignty claims and the call for greater international recognition.

The disaster recovery efforts and the emphasis on disaster preparedness also serve as a subtle reminder of Taiwan’s strategic importance in the face of persistent harassment. The dual use of emergency alert systems for both natural disasters and potential military attacks illustrates Taiwan’s comprehensive approach to security and mitigation measures, encompassing both natural and human-made threats.

The recent earthquake in Taiwan has not only tested the island’s disaster preparedness and response capabilities, but also carries broader strategic implications. Taiwan’s ability to effectively manage this crisis reinforces its resilience and strategic significance in the Asia-Pacific region, highlighting its role as a responsible and capable member of the international community. This event may also influence Taiwan’s relations with both its allies and adversaries, emphasizing the need for cooperation and support in the face of natural disasters and geopolitical challenges.


Uganda’s Presidential Succession Plan
On March 21, Ugandan President, Yoweri Museveni, announced that his son General (Gen.) Muhoozi Kainerugaba would become the country’s top army officer. Museveni has held the office of Presidency for nearly four decades, since 1986. It is widely believed that the long-term Presidency has been maintained through means of political intimidation, voter suppression, and ballot rigging. This newest appointment has fueled long-term suspicions that the leader is preparing his son to succeed him, a plan so expected that it has been named the “Muhoozi Project”, which Museveni has long denied. In addition to the newest appointment, Kainerugaba has increased his governmental duties by meeting with politicians and attending rallies for the Patriotic League of Uganda, which is not in line with the universal Ugandan rule barring active-duty army officers from participating in politics.  Should Museveni ultimately hand power to his son without a legitimate election, it would significantly increase the threat of civil unrest, nationwide. If coordinated demonstrations were to occur, precedent suggests that security forces would deploy additional resources to suppress dissent and potentially employ heavy handed and illegal tactics to maintain the ruling family’s control over power.

In Uganda, public demonstrations require several official approvals before commencing and must notify the police and obtain approval prior to conducting any demonstration. If a demonstration does occur and either escalates or does not reflect what was previously approved, demonstrators are often met with force from security officials. On January 18, leader of the opposition Bobi Wine stated that security services had surrounded his residence and held him essentially ‘under house arrest’ ahead of opposition protests planned for the day. The major reason for the planned opposition protest was in public disdain for road conditions in Uganda and not a highly tense political dispute. Regardless, officials moved quickly to punish and stop those leading the demonstration. The move by the authorities is indicative of the unease that the government has with certain political opponents gaining any traction on Museveni and his supporters.

Local media sources and users on social media have sporadically conducted online movements. In recent weeks, an online protest movement began trending on the social media platform X, formerly Twitter, called #UgandaParliamentExhibition. The movement protests the alleged corruption within the government. Local authorities have been known to arrest and physically assault government critics and have put in additional restrictions and monitoring resources towards social media platforms. In 2021, military officers broke into Kakwenza Rukirabashaija’s home, a known government critic and satirical writer, reportedly beating him, and then proceeded to detain him for 14 days. Rukirabashaija was later charged for “offensive communication” but then fled Uganda. Also in 2021, military officers raided the offices of an online television station, The Alternative DigiTalk, and proceeded to arrest nine staff members. Eventually, seven of the nine were released, but two were charged with cyberstalking and offensive communication “to disturb the peace and quiet of the President of Uganda.”

In a country where both public protests and social media usage can be met with a hard-handed response, the risk of civil unrest is likely to escalate. Though a presidential turnover within the family has been expected from current Ugandan President Museveni, every step towards that turnover has the potential to spark anger and movement in Ugandan society.


Regional Reaction to Crocus City Hall Terrorist Attack
On March 22, over 140 people were killed and over 500 injured at the Crocus City Hall concert venue on the outskirts of the Russian capital, Moscow, following a terrorist attack. The attack occurred when four people entered the venue and began to open fire on the crowd, then proceeded to use a flammable liquid to set fire to the concert hall’s premises. Militants aligned with the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISIS-K), an affiliate of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS), subsequently claimed responsibility for the attack in a brief statement on March 22. On March 23, ISIS-K released a photograph of what they claimed were the four attackers directly involved, all masked, and then later released highly graphic images of the attack. Russian officials have reported that at least nine people have been arrested in association with the attack, including the four attackers who carried out the act.

Notably, a public warning by the U.S. Embassy in Moscow was sent out on March 7, warning of a potential terrorist attack that specified the attack could occur at a concert. The U.S. warned that they were “monitoring reports that extremists have imminent plans to target large gatherings in Moscow, to include concerts.” Immediately following the alert, some Russian officials said that the statement was an American attempt to undermine domestic matters.

A call for international cooperation in the continued war on terrorism was addressed by the United Nations (UN) soon after the attack. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) spokesperson, Farah Dkhlallah, made clear that the military alliance “unequivocally” condemned the attack. Many countries echoed the condemning of the attack, including, but not limited to, China, Cuba, France, India, Israel, Syria, the U.S., and Venezuela.

Following the attack, many nations moved to assess and improve their national security levels and measures. On March 24, two days after the attack, French authorities raised the nation’s terror threat level (known as the Vigipirate level) to its highest rating, “emergency attack”. The new terror threat level enables authorities to deploy strict security measures, including increasing law enforcement and military patrols in public places and on public transport.

Germany also increased security measures along its borders after the attack, though the country does not have specific terrorism threat levels like other nations. The German interior minister announced that border security will be bolstered, including network security against cyberattacks, particularly ahead of the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) European Championship, scheduled to be held in several German cities this year from June to July 2024.

The recent terrorist attack in Russia has likely prompted many nations to re-assess their domestic security measures, particularly ahead of the summer months in which travel increases throughout Europe. Notably, the Summer Olympics are to be held in Paris, July 26 – August 11, 2024, as well as the previously mentioned UEFA European Championship in Germany.

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