On October 14, 2019, Chile’s President Sebastian Piñera announced a four percent fare hike for Santiago’s metro—from $1.12 to $1.16—hardly a draconian measure. However, the price increase immediately and unexpectedly ignited protests throughout the nation’s capital, with hundreds of metro users jumping turnstiles and refusing to recognize the proposed hike. Over the next few days, fed by a constant barrage of social media calls to action, thousands more joined demonstrations, some of which turned violent. At least 78 metro stations were damaged or burned down, a group of protesters set fire to a high-rise energy company building in Santiago, and some protests turned into running skirmishes with Chile’s carabineros (or security forces). What started as demonstrations against the fare hike evolved to protests against inequality and calls for Piñera’s resignation. By October 19, less than a week after the announcement, states of emergency were declared throughout the country and the sporadic, decentralized protests continued until early March 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic forced protestors to stay home.
What happened in Chile was not an isolated incident. The phenomenon of social protests turning violent and ultimately threatening to topple governments flared across Latin America at the end of 2019 and into 2020. The protests primarily targeted the leaders most aligned with the United States and who have strongly and vocally denounced the Nicolás Maduro regime in Venezuela: Piñera in Chile; Lenin Moreno in Ecuador; and Iván Duque in Colombia. The consequences for each were significant. Moreno was forced to temporarily move the capital from Quito to Guayaquil due the protesters’ violence and attacks on government buildings; and Duque imposed a curfew and suspended most government business in downtown Bogotá for more than a week. All three leaders saw their popularity sink to historic lows and continue to face crises of governability and legitimacy.
These results were not accidental nor were the social protests entirely spontaneous—although most began as legitimate expressions of civil discontent. As we detail in our recent report for the William Perry Center at National Defense University, these protests were also the product of a deliberate destabilization strategy by the Bolivarian Alliance led by the Maduro regime, designed to push legitimate social protest to violent extremes and incited social unrest. Providing resources to well-trained cadres and front groups located in each country to incite violence cost only a few hundred thousand dollars, yet results in millions of dollars worth of damage to each government.
We have defined the Bolivarian Alliance led by Venezuela and its regional allies—including the Daniel Ortega regime in Nicaragua, radical populists like Evo Morales in Bolivia, Rafael Correa of Ecuador, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) of El Salvador and Colombian guerrilla groups—as the Bolivarian Joint Criminal Enterprise (BJCE) because of the group’s reliance on illicit activities such as cocaine trafficking and illegal gold mining to sustain its common ideological purpose.
Diosdado Cabello, the head of the Maduro regime’s constituent national assembly, publicly warned in October 2019, as protests began, that a “Bolivarian hurricane” was descending on the region, and that the initial unrest was “just a little breeze” of what’s to come. The hurricane Cabello referenced was organized at a series of major Bolivarian conferences held in Caracas and Havana during the last quarter of 2019 to coordinate strategy and common messaging platforms.
BJCE leaders were forthright in acknowledging their role in the unrest. Speaking at the International Communication Conference hosted by Maduro’s United Socialist Party (PSUV), one leader of the Bolivarian Alliance, and former cultural attaché in the Chilean Embassy in Cuba, Florencia Lagos Neumann categorically stated the protests in Chile were not spontaneous. As the conference’s keynote speaker, Lagos Neumann added, “we [the BJCE] are organized, we are more than 100 organizations whose goal is to overturn the current political structure.”
At the forefront of the hurricane that descended on the region in the latter months of 2019 was a cadre of individuals and front groups trained by, and linked to, both the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and its dissident groups, as well as a smaller structure tied to the National Liberation Army (ELN). The FARC’s hemispheric network is built on hundreds of trained cadres over several decades and provided many of the shock troops that converted parts of the demonstrations in Chile, Colombia and Ecuador into violent, persistent and sometimes destructive incidents.
For example, for over a decade, Chile’s Communist Party sent scores of it’s militants to train in FARC camps, some of whom IBI Consultants, a Latin America-focused national security consulting firm, has identified as key provocateurs of burning metro stations. In Ecuador, where the FARC has for decades had a strong presence, numerous FARC activists, Bolivian instigators and Venezuelan agents led to the burning of government buildings. And in Colombia, civilian front groups with strong ties to the FARC and ELN have been at the forefront of the specific protests that turned violent.
In each case, the BJCE’s low-cost strategy achieved its intended goals of creating ongoing instability and economic loss while greatly weakening these governments and provoking ill-trained and unprepared law enforcement officers into overreacting with brutality. Chile was singularly unprepared for the unrest that left more than 20 people dead and recorded over 1,000 reports of excessive force by security forces. As protests consumed the country, Piñera was forced to cede to demands calling for a referendum to decide whether to rewrite Chile’s magna carta. After the initial protests in October, the Piñera government’s popularity plummeted to just 14 percent, and then slipped to only 10 percent in January 2020.
Another common exacerbating factor in the protests is the overwhelming number of Venezuelan migrants each of the three countries has taken in. According to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) figures, of the estimated 5.1 million Venezuelan refugees, half reside in Colombia (1.82 million), Ecuador (366,000) and Chile (455,000). This flood and the paltry international assistance given to deal with the humanitarian crisis has left governments with no resources to mitigate unrest or meet rising social demands.
While the majority of Venezuelans are legitimately fleeing the humanitarian catastrophe in their home country, IBI Consultant’s regional intelligence sources say there is strong evidence that the Maduro regime, despite publicly dismissing the refugees flows as propaganda, is quietly promoting the exodus specifically to destabilize the region and lessen internal economic pressures. In each country, the political unrest and economic contraction tied to refugee inflows has led to a sharp drop in the popularity of administrations allied with the United States and weakened them internally, serving as an important factor in driving protests demanding economic reform.
Finally, the use of social media, and specifically disinformation, to inflame tensions, was essential to the Bolivarian strategy. An analysis of 4.8 million tweets from 639,000 different Twitter accounts that used hashtags in favor of the protests in Chile were found to mostly originate from Venezuelan, Nicaraguan and Cuban accounts. The same study found that the majority of tweets using hashtags in opposition to the protests originated in Chile.
Another study that analyzed 7.6 million digital interactions (including posts on YouTube, Facebook, public Telegram or WhatsApp groups, or digital news media) on unrest in Colombia and Chile found that only 0.5 percent of users generated more than 28 percent of the content in both countries; and 58 percent of those accounts that shared their geolocation originated in Venezuela. The method of flooding social media from afar with pro-protest posts, did not prompt the unrest, but likely helped ensure they continued.
The COVID-19 crisis will likely keep protesters off the streets in the coming weeks and months. However, the BJCE’s low-cost, high return strategy of destabilizing U.S. allies in the region by exploiting social discontent will continue. The most effective strategy for countering this unrest is two-fold: first, recognize that Venezuela is only the most visible part of a large network of criminalized state and non-state actors. Then, develop an overarching policy of attacking the network’s financial and political architecture, rather than disjointed efforts in the region. Second, significantly bolster support for U.S. allies under attack by the BJCE through coordinated counter-messaging efforts and help in understanding and dismantling the network on a regional basis. Otherwise, even from its weakened position, the BJCE will continue to undermine democracy and the rule of law among U.S. regional allies.
Douglas Farah is the president of IBI Consultants, a Latin America-focused research firm specializing in mapping transnational organized crime and illicit actors through the fusion of expert fieldwork, open source data mining and exploitation. He is a senior visiting fellow at National Defense University’s Center for Strategic Research.
Caitlyn Yates is the Research Coordinator for IBI Consultants where she focuses on migration, borders and security in Latin America.