By Juan Paullier
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?
"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
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.
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
"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.
During the Cold War era there was a flurry of intelligence activity in
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
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
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.
"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
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, has condemned the plan and says
Washington will use the bases to spy on his country. Colombia and the US
BBC News - The role of spies in Latin America (28 November 2009)