May 23, 2022

As Russian missiles continue to rain down on Ukraine, the consequences of war are also being felt thousands of miles away. Several countries in Latin America depend on wheat and fertilizer exports from Russia and Ukraine, where the ongoing war has caused a disruption in the supply chain of these agricultural products prompting shortages and the average food basket price to spike regionwide.

Brazil, for instance, is one of the largest agricultural producers in the world, particularly in soybeans. But the soybean industry in Brazil depends on fertilizers that the country imports. 23 percent of Brazil’s fertilizers come from Russia (and another 14 percent come from China) placing the South American giant at the mercy of the VRIC. Since the Ukraine war began, both Iran and Russia have increasingly courted Brazil, making promises to increase exports of fertilizer and related products, claiming they will save the country from famine. Moscow and Tehran even started the hashtag #AmizadeBrasilirã to use disinformation to continue to sway Brazil into its geopolitical orbit.

The Ukraine war is also exacerbating the crisis at the U.S. southern border. According to recent CBP data, encounters of Ukrainians and Russians at the border have increased 753% between FY2020 and 2021 as Russian military-aged males are flocking to Tijuana en route to the United States.

 

Senior U.S. defense officials are becoming increasingly cognizant of the threat posed by the VRIC network. SOUTHCOM’s 2022 Posture Statement by General Laura Richardson before the Senate Armed Services Committee, highlights China’s “self-serving, predatory influence” in Latin America, Russia’s robust disinformation efforts, and Iran’s military alliance with Venezuela, Cuba, and Bolivia, as just part of the challenge that America faces against a growing VRIC network in our neighborhood:

“Today, more than ever, America’s fate is inextricably linked to events beyond our shores.” Nowhere is this more evident than right here in the Western Hemisphere. This region—our shared neighborhood—is under assault from a host of cross-cutting, transboundary challenges that directly threaten our own homeland. Countering these threats requires greater U.S. attention, commitment, and investments to reverse the current disturbing trends.

 

With the VRIC alliance strengthening, U.S. strategic partner Colombia is facing an unprecedented challenge to its democracy. Having survived a decades-long guerilla insurgency and various phases of narco-terrorism, the second oldest democracy in the region, Colombia, is now facing perhaps its most pressing challenge: foreign intrusion by the VRIC, namely Russia. U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, Victoria Nuland, traveled to Bogota in February to emphasize that “foreign actors” are attempting to interfere with Colombia’s upcoming elections. Since then, at least two Russian nationals have been arrested in Bogota in a massive money-laundering scheme that could have strategic implications in Colombia and Latin America.

VENEZUELA

The Maduro regime has consolidated power within Venezuela, receiving a call from Russia’s Vladimir Putin and accepting a visit from the Biden administration in early March. He also welcomed an International Criminal Court (ICC) office to Caracas after meeting with prosecutor Karim Khan, expressing “the doors of Venezuela were open” to the ICC team. The doors of Venezuela are open to returning nationals, as well. So far, 28,521 Venezuelans from 21 countries have returned under the “Plan Vuelta a la Patria.” With a deteriorated economy that is slightly rebounding, Maduro is pushing the propaganda that Venezuela is back in business and ready for foreign investment.

 

Investment that will undoubtedly come from dubious places. In the past couple months, Maduro has signed commercial agreements with Iran, Nigeria, Bolivia, Cuba, and Equatorial Guinea. Venezuela’s Foreign Minister Félix Plasencia took a trip to Bolivia in early May to sign several agreements and set up a potential trip by Nicolás Maduro to the Andean nation this summer.

 

With international support solidified, Maduro is focusing on destabilizing his neighbors, namely Colombia. As Russian forces move across Ukraine, foreign disinformation from the Maduro regime invades Colombia. Echoing Putin’s “denazification” argument for invading Ukraine, Venezuela likens their battle with Colombia for the “de-cocaine-ization” of the country. Diosdado Cabello underscored this on his program, El Mazo Dando, where he accused the Colombian Air Force (FAC) of partnering with drug traffickers along the border.

 

As Colombia readies for its presidential election on May 29, an earlier Colombian election is mired in fraud allegations. Although the left in Colombia did well in the March 13 legislative elections, winning more seats in the Colombian congress, leftist Senator Gustavo Petro initially made allegations of fraud but then retracted.

An investigation was opened into the Registrar’s Office where, according to the Colombian National Registrar, Alexander Vega, more than half a million votes were found missing due to a “human error.” The software in question comes from the Spanish firm Indra Sistemas S.A. Curiously enough, Senator Petro traveled to Madrid, Spain in early February and spoke at an event where representatives of the public-private Spanish firm, Indra, were reportedly present. Senator Petro also met with the former president of the Spanish government, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, and the current President Pedro Sanchez on his trip to Spain, the second in less than one month for the Colombian senator.

 

Elsewhere in the region instability is on the rise. Protests have erupted in Peru, Bolivia, Paraguay, Ecuador, and Guatemala. The state of affairs is only made worse by the looming food security crisis in Latin America exacerbated by shortages of wheat and fertilizer due to the war in Ukraine.

RUSSIA

Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine rages on past the two month mark and the lasting effects in Latin America are rising food prices. Still reeling from the economic effects of the pandemic, Latin America is on the verge of a food insecurity crisis. This state of affairs likely prompted six Latin American nations to push a proposal to exclude fertilizer from the U.S. and international sanctions against Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.

At the same time, Russian and Ukrainian migrants are flocking to Tijuana en route to the United States. According to CBP data, encounters of Ukrainians and Russians at the border have increased 753% between FY2020 and 2021. Monthly encounters have surpassed 2,000 since September 2021, the highest levels on record for the last 15 years. And unsurprisingly, just halfway through, FY2022 encounters have already surpassed last year’s total. Since 2020, CBP reported 27,670 encounters with Ukrainian refugees. Almost half of which have been recorded this fiscal year.

Further south, Colombian authorities arrested two Russian nationals in Bogota for a massive money laundering scheme that involved 77 people and moved more than $146 million dollars since 2018. Sergei Vagin, a Russian national codenamed “Servac” was arrested on March 30, along with five Colombian citizens accused of organizing the money laundering scheme known as “pitufeo” by using Russian sports bettors through bank accounts of local Colombians who exchange the funds for cryptocurrency and take the funds abroad. At the same time, a Russian woman was arrested in Suba, a neighborhood in northern Bogota, with computers and memory sticks that had documents and information pertaining to Russian espionage and counterintelligence techniques.

The combination of the Russian woman’s profile and Sergei Vagin’s pattern of life prompted allegations that the massive money-laundering scheme could have helped fund the violent national protests last year and/or increased destabilization in Colombia’s elections this year.

IRAN

In late February, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz raised concern about Venezuela’s Iran-supported drone program and the shipment of Iranian precision-guided munitions (PGM) to the Maduro regime. Venezuela has adopted Iranian drones for military purposes for more than a decade. Initially focused on surveillance and reconnaissance, the evolution of Venezuela’s military drone program will likely see ballistic units attached to the UAVs being used on its borders.

 

More recently, a high-level Iranian delegation, headed by its Petroleum Minister Javad Owji, traveled to Caracas and Managua in early May to sign various cooperation agreements in energy and agriculture. According to media reports, senior Iranian defense officials and IRGC officers accompanied this delegation to Venezuela and Nicaragua.

 

Aside from energy deals, Iran also seems to be triangulating with Russia on fertilizer trade to South America. In late February, Brazilian Minister of Agriculture Tereza Cristina traveled to Iran to negotiate a business agenda on fertilizer, specifically imports of Iranian urea. At the same time, President Bolsonaro traveled to Moscow where Russian producers promised to double their sales to Brazil. While attempting to work around the sanctions, discussions are underway with the United States for a waiver that would allow Brazil to increase trade with Iran.

 

Also increasing is Iran’s diplomatic and cultural engagement with Latin America. The 40th anniversary of the Iranian Revolution in February gave the Islamic Republic reason to host several cultural events across the region. While Bolivia and Venezuela’s president, along with the Mexican Foreign Ministry, were quick to congratulate Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on the anniversary, Iran’s Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance along with Al Mustafa International University based in Qom, Iran started hosting international seminars named Cátedra Libre Qassem Soleimani. The Spanish seminars, named after the slain Qods Force commander, are organized at the Universidad Bolivariana de Venezuela (UBV) and are building ties to other universities in South America, namely in Bolivia and Argentina.

CHINA

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi was busy last month furthering Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) deals in Latin America with calls to Uruguay, Nicaragua, and Ecuador. The former, Uruguay, joined the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the BRICS New Development Bank, providing momentum for continued cooperation. Ecuador is also ready to sign cooperation agreements with China under the BRI.

 

The BRI is also in full swing in Argentina despite pushback from local Mapuche communities. Progress on two dams being built on the 236-mile Santa Cruz River in Patagonia have continued amidst protests, lawsuits and court orders to pause construction. China also received good news in Peru, where indigenious communities lifted a protest at Las Bambas copper mines that caused a halt in operations.

 

But the BRI isn’t the only in-roads China has in the region. Chinese President Xi Jinping has invited Argentina to participate in three BRICS events, including a get-together of political parties, social organizations and think tanks; a summit of foreign ministers from Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, and the Argentine Minister as a guest on May 20; and a summit of the five-plus one leaders that is scheduled for June 24.

In Peru, China is running into problems with the indigenious communities in the Apurímac Region in the south of the country. On April 20, Chinese mining firm MMG announced it will halt activities at Las Bambas copper mine due to safety concerns stemming from a group of 130 people who had been camping on the property since April 14.

 

And as Russia attempts to delegitimize the international financial system, China has signed an agreement with a Switzerland-based bank to establish a reserve of yuan currency together with Indonesia, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Singapore and Chile to counter the US dollar.

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A decade ago, many in the U.S. foreign policy and national security community were downplaying an emerging alliance between Russia and China, and neglected Iran and Venezuela as part of the Great Power Competition that was rising to challenge the United States.

 

Today, it’s a reality. Venezuela, Russia, Iran, and China or “The VRIC” are in a strategic alliance that is evident in global conflicts like the War in Ukraine or through joint naval exercises in the Gulf of Oman. Despite their natural differences, The VRIC is increasingly active in regions of the world where the United States is spread thin.

 

In 2019, we began the VRIC Transregional Threats Program to fill this gap and start educating policymakers about the multi-dimensional, national security challenge posed by external state actors in Latin America and the Caribbean.

 

Since then, we have published more than two dozen detailed reports and given countless interviews and briefings about The VRIC. Many of our reports, called the VRIC Monitor, have been cited in leading media outlets, such as The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post, or featured in various briefings with the Department of Defense (DoD) and partner militaries around the world.

 

Now, through our cutting-edge, multimedia website, the Center for a Secure Free Society (SFS) is able to illuminate the full range of VRIC activities in real-time. By accessing the interactive, virtual map you can learn about the diplomatic, informational, military, and economic elements of strategic influence by VRIC networks. The map is fully interactive and is searchable by category, country, timeline, and keywords.

 

The VRIC Monitor website allows you to correlate Venezuela, Russia, Iran, and China’s activities in different Latin American countries at the same time and across a five-year timeline, to find patterns, trends, and ultimately be able to analyse the strategic influence of America’s near-peer adversaries in our neighborhood.

 

The VRIC Monitor is the largest repository of open-source information on the activities of China, Russia, and Iran in Latin America and the Caribbean. Aside from the interactive map, the VRIC Monitor produces analytic reports, detailed infographics, and short videos to help you interpret the most relevant VRIC activities in a given month.

 

Coming soon the VRIC Monitor will have a subscription-based, premium section that will allow you to dig deeper into external actor influence by analyzing digital disinformation forensics and tracking travel routes from overseas. These premium products are powered by an SFS internal database that uses Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning tools to collect bulk data on Venezuela, Russia, Iran, and China in English, Spanish, Portuguese, and French (with additional languages expected to be added in the future).

 

This website is an iterative project by SFS and will be updated on a monthly basis and upgraded periodically with new features. The interactive map is launching with a robust data set of almost 2,000 entries dating back to 2019. We plan to continue to add new entries on a monthly basis.

 

Thank you for visiting the VRIC Monitor and we hope this service is useful for your research and analysis and can inform your understanding of U.S. national security threats, challenges, and opportunities in the Western Hemisphere.