Page last updated at 16:18 GMT, Saturday, 28 November 2009

The role of spies in Latin America

By Juan Paullier
BBC Mundo

Phone-tapping is a widespread method of intelligence-gathering

Charges of blackmail and espionage have led to arrests and several rows between a number of Latin American countries.

In October, the Venezuelan authorities detained two Colombian nationals they accused of being spies.

And earlier this month, diplomatic relations between Chile and Peru were tested, after it emerged that a Peruvian aviation official gave the Chilean government secret documents revealing his government's arms purchases until 2021.

Chile has rejected a protest note from Peru, but Michelle Bachelet's government has indicated that it might punish officials if they are found to have spied on Peru.

So, how widespread is espionage in Latin America and is it on the rise?

Old suspicions

"There has always been spying in this region, and there will always be," says Robert Munks, Americas editor of Jane's Intelligence Weekly.

There is the use of blackmail, and in some instances there is even physical violence, including selective killings sometimes
Nigel Inkster
Former British intelligence official

"But looking at the recent scandals you could say there is an increase in the cases that are becoming public."

Regarding the recent row between Chile and Peru, Mr Munks believes the spying scandal is part of the historic rivalry between them.

But he also thinks the disagreement flared up because the popularity of Peru's President Alan Garcia is on the wane, and the row could be an attempt to deflect attention from his flagging ratings.

Poor intelligence

Fernando Velasco is an academic in Security Studies at Rey Juan Carlos University in Spain.

For him, "the intelligence services are useful for governments to anticipate threats and changing scenarios. It helps them to make the best decisions possible."

But former British intelligence official Nigel Inkster says that this is not the case in Latin America.

The region, he says, has not developed sophisticated methods of spying.

"If you look at Latin America as a whole, there isn't a high quality intelligence service," says Mr Inkster, currently the director of Transnational Threats and Political Risk at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the IISS

Most of the intelligence services in Latin America evolve around what are called "Techint" operations.

They use phone-tapping and satellite tracking devices, instead of using the much more complex "Humint" operations, where moles are placed inside organisations.

"But in countries which tend to focus their intelligence activities on internal security, there is the use of blackmail.

"And in some instances there is even physical violence, including selective killings sometimes," Mr Inkster adds.

According to Mr Munks, most intelligence services in Latin America pay more attention to internal threats rather than external ones.

"Maybe only Argentina, Brazil, and perhaps Mexico, are capable of actually spying outside of their borders," he says.

International spying

During the Cold War era there was a flurry of intelligence activity in the region.

The former Soviet Union, the US and other countries had intelligence operations in Latin America.

Interest in the region has declined since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. But Mr Munks believes it has not completely disappeared.

The Pentagon in the United States
The US has long taken a close interest in the region

The US still keeps close tabs on Latin America, especially Colombia, where Marxist rebels are embroiled in a decades-long war to overthrow the government, and the country is awash with drug cartels which run the cocaine trade.

Another area of interest is the "Triple Border" between Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, where there are suspicions that some organisations are funding radical Islamist groups around the world.

Indeed, some experts say that with a shift in economic power from the US to the East, it is possible that other countries are beginning to take greater notice of Latin America.

They think Russia and China may have recently increased their intelligence-gathering in Latin America to gain more influence in the region and, in Russia's case, to secure arms deals.

And of course there is Cuba.

"Both China and Russia's services have a close relationship with the intelligence community there in an advisory role," says Mr Munks.

Experts say this "advisory role" that Cuba has with Russia and China is spreading to other parts of Latin America.

Increasing espionage

"Havana is currently exporting the biggest number of spies in the region to its close ally Venezuela," says Mr Munks.

Mr Inkster believes this could have serious implications.

"It could eventually have an impact on how the government deals with the Venezuelan opposition," he says.

There has been no comment from the Venezuelan government, who are pressing ahead with the prosecution of the two men arrested last month and charged with spying on behalf of Colombia.

Relations between the two countries were frozen in July when Colombia announced it would allow the US to use its military bases for anti-drugs operations.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, has condemned the plan and says Washington will use the bases to spy on his country. Colombia and the US deny this.

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