Regional Risk Primer: Americas

RileySENTINEL Regional Security Risk Environment Report

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In the increasingly interconnected world, NGOs and international development organizations operating in the Americas face diverse and complex security risks. These risks can significantly impact their ability to achieve their goals and ensure the safety of their staff and assets. This comprehensive guide dives deeper into the key security risk considerations for the Americas region, including political instability, crime and violence, terrorism, natural disasters, and cybersecurity. Historical examples for each category are also reviewed, lending additional context for respective countries located within the region.

Additionally, this article highlights the importance of utilizing a comprehensive and reliable platform for organizations to remain well-informed in order to remain situationally aware and be able to mitigate these risks more effectively.

Political Instability: A Closer Look

Political instability can manifest in various forms, including coups, contested elections, mass protests, and civil unrest. NGOs and international development organizations must be prepared to adapt to sudden changes in political dynamics and have contingency plans in place to respond to potential crises. This requires conducting regular political risk assessments and closely monitoring political events and trends that could impact their operations. In volatile environments, maintaining strong relationships with local authorities, community leaders, and other stakeholders can be crucial for navigating potential challenges.

Historical Examples:

  • Venezuela (2014-present): The ongoing political and economic crisis in Venezuela began in 2014, marked by hyperinflation, food and medicine shortages, and escalating crime rates. The contested presidential election in 2018 led to further protests and unrest, as the country faced two rival governments: Nicolás Maduro's regime and the opposition led by Juan Guaidó.

  • Honduras (2009): In 2009, the Honduran military ousted then-President Manuel Zelaya, leading to a coup d'état. This resulted in political unrest, widespread protests, and violence in the country. The coup's aftermath had long-lasting effects on the nation's stability and democratic institutions.

  • Haiti (2010-present): Haiti has experienced a series of political crises over the past 15 years. The 2010 earthquake exacerbated existing political and socioeconomic issues, with multiple changes in government, widespread protests, and corruption allegations. The assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in 2021 further destabilized the country and led to increased violence and insecurity.

  • Bolivia (2019-2020): In 2019, the contested re-election of President Evo Morales led to widespread protests and violence across Bolivia. Morales was eventually forced into exile, and an interim government took over. However, the political unrest continued, culminating in the 2020 presidential election, which saw the victory of Luis Arce, a member of Morales' Movement for Socialism party.

Crime and Violence: Location Specific

Crime and violence can be a considerable obstacle for NGOs and international development organizations. In some countries, high homicide rates, kidnapping, and extortion can create an atmosphere of fear and insecurity. Organizations need to conduct thorough security risk assessments to identify potential threats and vulnerabilities in their areas of operation. They should also establish strict security protocols and guidelines for their staff, including travel restrictions, communication procedures, and situational awareness training. In most countries, location and understanding specific crime rates by province and even district level can be significant advantage.

Historical Examples:

  • San Pedro Sula, Honduras: Known for its high levels of gang-related violence and drug trafficking, San Pedro Sula has consistently been ranked among the most dangerous cities in the Americas. The city is a hotspot for gang activity, with the notorious MS-13 and Barrio 18 gangs controlling various neighborhoods.

  • Caracas, Venezuela: As Venezuela's capital, Caracas has experienced soaring crime rates, particularly during the country's ongoing political and economic crisis. Kidnappings, robberies, and homicides are common, making Caracas one of the most dangerous cities in the region.

  • Rio de Janeiro, Brazil: Despite its picturesque beaches and vibrant culture, Rio de Janeiro is also home to high levels of crime. Gangs and drug traffickers control many of the city's favelas, leading to frequent shootouts and violence. Tourist areas can also be targeted by criminals for theft and robberies.

  • Acapulco, Mexico: Once a popular tourist destination, Acapulco has become a center for drug-related violence and crime in recent years. Rival cartels battle for control over the city, leading to high homicide rates and frequent incidents of kidnapping and extortion.

Terrorism: Regional Dynamics

While the overall terrorism threat in the Americas region is relatively low compared to other regions, it is still crucial to remain vigilant. In some countries, domestic extremist groups or transnational terrorist networks pose a potential threat. To mitigate this risk, organizations should maintain a comprehensive understanding of the local and regional terrorism landscape. Collaborating with local security forces and intelligence agencies can help ensure access to up-to-date information and enhance preparedness for potential attacks.

Historical Examples:

  • Bogotá, Colombia car bombing (2019): On January 17, 2019, a car bomb exploded at the General Santander National Police Academy in Bogotá, Colombia, killing 22 people and injuring 68 others. The National Liberation Army (ELN), a guerrilla group active in Colombia, claimed responsibility for the attack.

  • LaMia Flight 2933 crash (2016): The crash of LaMia Flight 2933 on November 28, 2016, in Colombia killed 71 people, including members of the Brazilian Chapecoense football team. While the official cause of the crash was determined to be fuel exhaustion, some experts believe that the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) might have been involved, either through direct action or by forcing the pilot to fly through a dangerous route.

  • Buenos Aires, Argentina AMIA bombing (1994): Though not within the past 15 years, the bombing of the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA) building in Buenos Aires on July 18, 1994, is a significant terrorist incident in the Americas. The attack killed 85 people and injured hundreds more. Argentine investigators and international intelligence agencies linked the attack to Iran and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, though no one has been convicted for the crime.

  • Attack on the Palace of Justice in Lima, Peru (2005): On January 2, 2005, members of the Shining Path, a Maoist guerrilla group in Peru, attacked the Palace of Justice in Lima with explosives. While no one was killed or injured, the attack caused significant damage to the building and marked a resurgence of the Shining Path's activities after a period of relative inactivity.

Natural Disasters: Preparedness and Resilience

The Americas region is highly susceptible to various natural disasters, including hurricanes, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and floods. These events can cause significant damage to infrastructure, disrupt essential services, and affect the overall stability of communities. NGOs and international development organizations should invest in disaster risk reduction initiatives, such as improving early warning systems, conducting community-based disaster preparedness training, and enhancing the resilience of local infrastructure. Additionally, organizations should maintain up-to-date disaster preparedness plans that outline response and recovery strategies, as well as emergency contact and communication procedures.

Historical Examples:

  • Haiti Earthquake (2010): On January 12, 2010, a catastrophic 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck Haiti, with the epicenter near the town of Léogâne. The earthquake caused widespread devastation, resulting in an estimated 200,000 to 300,000 deaths, displacing 1.5 million people, and severely damaging the country's infrastructure.

  • Chile Earthquake and Tsunami (2010): On February 27, 2010, an 8.8 magnitude earthquake struck off the coast of central Chile, generating a tsunami that affected the coastline. The disaster caused over 500 deaths, displaced nearly 2 million people, and caused significant damage to infrastructure, particularly in the coastal towns.

  • Hurricane Maria (2017): Hurricane Maria, a Category 5 hurricane, caused widespread destruction across several Caribbean islands in September 2017. The hurricane severely impacted Dominica, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico. In Puerto Rico, the hurricane caused approximately 3,000 deaths and left the island without power for months, leading to a humanitarian crisis.

  • Ecuador Earthquake (2016): On April 16, 2016, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck the coast of Ecuador, causing widespread devastation. The earthquake resulted in over 660 deaths, thousands of injuries, and the displacement of tens of thousands of people. The disaster caused significant damage to buildings and infrastructure, particularly in the towns of Manta, Pedernales, and Portoviejo.

Digital Safety & Safeguarding of Digital Assets

The increasing reliance on digital systems and data makes cybersecurity an essential aspect of risk management for NGOs and international development organizations. Cyber threats, such as ransomware, data breaches, and phishing attacks, can cause significant financial and reputational damage. To mitigate these risks, organizations should adopt a comprehensive cybersecurity strategy, including regular vulnerability assessments, security awareness training for staff, and implementing multi-factor authentication and encryption for sensitive data.

Historical Examples:

  • Operation Car Wash, Brazil (2014-present): Operation Car Wash is a large-scale corruption investigation in Brazil, which has uncovered extensive graft and bribery involving politicians, business executives, and state-owned companies. The operation has utilized extensive digital surveillance and wiretapping to gather evidence, raising concerns about the potential for government overreach and invasion of privacy.

  • Twitter censorship in Venezuela (2014): During the 2014 protests in Venezuela against President Nicolás Maduro's government, the Venezuelan government blocked access to Twitter and other social media platforms for several hours, in an attempt to control the flow of information and quell dissent. This action raised concerns about freedom of speech and government censorship in the digital age.

  • Pegasus spyware targeting journalists in Mexico (2017): In 2017, it was revealed that the Mexican government had used the Pegasus spyware, developed by the Israeli company NSO Group, to target journalists, human rights activists, and lawyers. The sophisticated spyware allowed the government to monitor and collect information from the targeted individuals' smartphones, raising concerns about digital safety and government overreach.

  • Ecuador's mass surveillance system (2018): In 2018, it was reported that Ecuador had implemented a mass surveillance system called "Ecu-911", which combined thousands of cameras, microphones, and other monitoring devices across the country. The system, which was partially funded by China, raised concerns about privacy and the potential for abuse by government authorities.


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