- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 12, 2018

Defense Secretary James N. Mattis has embarked on his first diplomatic visit to South America, arriving as the region continues to be embroiled in political and economic upheaval that could have a destabilizing effect.

Departing Sunday, the Pentagon chief first will visit military and national security counterparts in Brazil, before traveling to Argentina and Chile and ending his visit with meetings with administration officials of newly elected Colombian President Ivan Duque — the youngest president elected in the South American nation.

The visit coincides with Trump administration efforts to expand U.S. cooperation with allies in the Americas, according to a Pentagon statement on Mr. Mattis’ trip.

“These relationships are critical to a collaborative, prosperous and secure Western hemisphere,” Defense Department officials noted, according to the statement.

However, internal tensions in Venezuela and in nearby Nicaragua threaten to undermine efforts by Washington and the international community in Central and South America.

Mr. Mattis’ visit comes weeks after Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro was the target of an drone assassination attempt. Popular uprisings against Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and the regime’s brutal crackdown on those protests have regional experts saying the country could be facing a civil war.

Aside from turmoil in the Americas, U.S. defense and national security officials continue to grapple with the threat of radical jihadist groups such as the Islamic State taking root in the region, possibly using Central and South American nations as a launch pad for attacks inside the United States.

The attempted assassination of Mr. Maduro made global headlines, as grainy cellphone video purported to show a propeller-topped drone exploding near an apartment building in Caracas. The video’s veracity could not be confirmed, but other footage quickly spread from Venezuelan news outlets showing a panicked crowed dispersing from a nearby political rally as Mr. Maduro’s security guards scrambled to cover him with bulletproof shields.

Venezuelan Interior Minister Nestor Reverol claimed that two drones, each packed with 2.2 pounds of C4 plastic explosive, were flown toward Mr. Maduro, his wife and other top leaders as the president spoke to hundreds of troops during the event celebrating the 81st anniversary of the Venezuelan National Guard. Government officials have detained six suspects in connection with the attack, with Caracas claiming co-conspirators in Miami, Colombia and elsewhere.

Mr. Maduro’s government, which took power after the 2013 death of strongman Hugo Chavez, is barely clinging to power amid an economic tumult. The country was thrown in to chaos this spring when Venezuela’s currency, the Bolivar, was forcast to hit 1 million percent inflation this year. Despite the crumbling economy, Mr. Maduro won reelection in May amid claims of election rigging.

In Nicaragua, public outcry for the ouster of Mr. Ortega continues to mount amid a bloody crackdown on protesters that human rights groups claims includes illegal detentions and torture.

Protesters took to the streets of Managua and other major cities in April, calling for reforms to Nicaragua’s state-run pension programs. Those demonstrations quickly evolved into calls for Mr. Ortega’s ouster. Hundreds of anti-government protesters reportedly have been killed by police and paramilitary groups loyal to the Ortega regime, including 14 killed last week during a raid by pro-Ortega forces.

“The situation is serious. There is an undue attack by government forces that is causing bloodshed, more death and mourning in our country,” Alvaro Leiva, executive secretary of the Nicaraguan Association for Human Rights, told al Jazzera.

Unrest in Venezuela, Nicaragua and elsewhere in the Americas could create an opening for terrorist groups such as the Islamic State and al Qaeda to gain a foothold in the region, U.S. commanders warn.

Before the rise of the terrorist group known as ISIS, Central and South American nations had primarily been targeted by Iran. Tehran had used the region’s smuggling and narcotics trafficking networks to raise funds for Shiite militant groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah.

While the threat of Islamic State splinter factions has hammered European countries the hardest, the group has made efforts to expand into Afghanistan, Southeast Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean.

The number of Islamic State fighters and affiliated extremists is “in the hundreds” across Central and South America, U.S. Southern Command chief Adm. Kurt Tidd said in 2016, as ISIS was on the verge of losing its Middle East capitals of Mosul, Iraq, and Raqqa, Syria. “Radicalization within our region is occurring.”

U.S. officials and regional experts say the problem will only metastasize as Islamic State continues to lose ground in the Mideast and its fleeing fighters and top commanders look to press the group’s movement elsewhere across the globe, including Central and South America.

• Carlo Muñoz can be reached at cmunoz@washingtontimes.com.

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