SOUTHCOM chief monitoring rising extremism in Latin America
WASHINGTON — The four-star general leading the U.S. military’s Southern Command said he is worried about the increasing extremist views across Latin America.
U.S. Air Force Gen. Douglas Fraser on Tuesday said he needs more intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets, particularly as Venezuela stockpiles small arms, Iran takes a more visible economic and diplomatic presence, and a steady flow of money from the region makes its way to Middle East-based terror groups.
“The growing trend that I’m concerned about is just growing extremism and support for extremist views,” he said. “I don’t know where it’s going. I just know that if we look at it in other parts of the world it has not been a trend that’s been helpful to the United States.”
The commander’s biggest military concern is Venezuela’s massive weapons purchases from Russia. Included in the multibillion-dollar arms deal are 100,000 AK-103 assault rifles and 2,400 shoulder-fired SA-24 missiles capable of downing U.S. surveillance aircraft.
And while Venezuela is not a direct military threat to the United States, Fraser said, the country’s armed forces are modernizing and tensions are rising with Colombia, which could destabilize the region. He said he has no idea why Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is investing in such a vast arsenal, but he is concerned that weapons could end up in the hands of groups like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
“It’s just an opportunity for pretty substantial weapons to be available to illicit trafficking groups,” he said. “I’m not seeing evidence of it yet, but it’s a concern.”
Meanwhile, Iran is set to open its 12th embassy within SOUTHCOM’s territory, five more than it had in 2007. And a Pentagon report to Congress last week said there was “an increased presence in Latin America, particularly Venezuela,” of the elite Qods Force within Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. That group places operatives in embassies and was behind the 1994 bombing of a Jewish Community Center in Buenos Aires, Argentina, the report said.
On Monday, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said the account of Iranian forces in his country was “absolutely false,” according to The Associated Press.
“I don’t see any arms or any indication of arms coming from Iran," Fraser said. "Our concern is their connection to Hezbollah and Hamas.”
Fraser said he was monitoring the steady logistical and financial support for branches of those groups in Latin America.