Peruvian troops’ “training alongside US forces will help to improve their capabilities and strengthen the operational performance of [Peruvian] Special Forces, boosting their interoperability with NATO systems and doctrine.”
As Peru descends even deeper into political chaos and ungovernability, the main priority for its unelected President Dina Boluarte is basic survival. So says a piece in the Peruvian daily La Republica, adding that Boluarte’s dire approval rating (14%-17%) is a result not just of the 60 protesters’ deaths on her watch but also her abject lack of management ability. As vice president, Boluarte helped to topple and replace her former boss, Peru’s elected President Pedro Castillo, now languishing in jail, sparking riots throughout the country. But since then (December 7), her short-lived presidency has brought nothing but bloodshed, chaos and division.
Peru is currently in the grip of its worst ever Dengue outbreak, which is hitting poor communities — many of the same communities that voted for Castillo — particularly hard. Five days ago, the Health Minister Rosa Gutiérrez’s resigned over criticism of her management of the crisis. Gutiérrez’s replacement, César Vásquez, faces allegations in Peru’s Congress of influence peddling in early 2021. It is against this backdrop that Boluarte chose to break the news five days ago that she will not be calling general elections until 2026 — despite the fact she has repeatedly pledged to call new elections some time this year, has zero democratic legitimacy, is broadly despised by the public and is under investigation for numerous human rights violations.
But Boluarte still enjoys the support of the US Embassy*, and for the moment that is what counts. In fact, there are 1,172 US soldiers on Peruvian soil right now or at least on their way there. As I reported in my May 26 post, Why Are US Military Personnel Heading to Peru?, the Boluarte government and Peru’s Congress — which ranks even lower in the public’s estimation than Boluarte — have authorised the entry of US troops onto Peruvian soil between June 1 and August 29. They also authorised the entry of 11 US military aircraft, two boats, two trucks, rockets, grenades, detonators, satellite communication equipment, machine guns, pistols and ammunition.
War Games in the New Cold War
Since that article, more details have seeped out about the US military’s presence in Peru, which is certainly out of the ordinary. US troops have entered Peru periodically for decades, but never for periods as long as this. “Juegos de Guerra” (War Games), an in-depth report published by the weekly newspaper Hildebrandt en sus trece, wagers that the main reason for the US troops’ mobilisation is as a show of force to Washington’s main strategic rivals, Russia and China, which are “eroding” US influence in the region.
“There is a global political confrontation between the United States and China and Russia. Peru is key because we are located at a strategic point in the Pacific basin, a gateway for China and access point to Brazil’s huge market on the Atlantic seaboard. We are a hinge”, Wilson Barrantes, former director of Peru’s National Intelligence Directorate (DINI), told the weekly newspaper.
Most of the US military personnel will be taking part in Resolute Sentinel 2023, a military exercise that will be staged across a number of regions of Peru between June and August. The 12th Air Force-led U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) exercise was first held in 2021 when the US deployed 129 military personnel to Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. A year later, the military contingent was multiplied by seven and Belize joined the list of participating countries. The third edition will be held for the first time in South America, in a single nation: Peru.
Before the exercise begins, a contingent of 42 members of the US Special Forces will participate in training with Peru’s Joint Intelligence and Special Operations Command, the Joint Special Force and the FAP Special Forces Group. An additional 160 US soldiers, manning nine aircraft, will train with personnel from the Peruvian Air Force, Special Forces (GRUFE), the Space Operations Centre (Copes), and the National Satellite Image Centre (Cnois). Then, a total of 970 members of the US Air Force (USAF), Space Force (USSF) and the US Special Forces will participate in Resolute Sentinel 2023. An additional 65 US military personnel will be staying put until the end of the year to oversee ongoing training programs.
Preparations for the exercise were thrashed out between the US Embassy in Lima and Ana Cecilia Gervasi Diaz, Peru’s Minister of Foreign Affairs. Gervasi Diaz was appointed to the role by Boluarte on December 10, just three days after Castillo’s impeachment and imprisonment.
NATO’s Moves in Latin America
In late December, shortly after Castillo’s fall, the Mexican geopolitical analyst Alfredo Jalife-Rahme warned in one of his video conferences (which we covered here) that the United States and China are “in a war for Peru’s soul”. As I noted at the time, this “war” of which Jalife speaks is rather one-sided, given that China, unlike the US, does not tend to meddle in internal politics in the region, or at least hasn’t until now. Now, six months later, Hildebrandt en sus trece, a widely respected Peruvian news outlet, has reached a similar conclusion by tracing some of the steps that led to the US military’s current presence in Peru (text, including the excerpts of Admiral Craig Faller’s document, translated from the Spanish by yours truly):
“In May 2019 Admiral Craig Faller, then head of Southern Command, presented an internal document called “Enduring Promise for the Americas.” It was about a plan for winning allies in Latin America and the Caribbean up to 2027 with the goal of “improving security, protecting the US homeland and our national interests,” says the report.
In the document SOUTHCOM singles out two threats in the US’ “backyard”: Chinese influence and the growth of organised crime. On the spectre of Xi Jinping, Faller paints a bleak picture: “In many areas around the world, including this hemisphere, our competitive advantage is eroding (…) China has expanded its ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative in Latin America and the Caribbean at a pace that could one day eclipse its expansion in South East Asia and Africa. Its trade and investments are increasing rapidly and it is now the biggest creditor to the region. Chinese control of deep water ports and infrastructure connected to the Panama Canal bolsters its operational position. Its investments in telecommunications and access to space tracking facilities put at risk military operations, intellectual property and data privacy, says the report.
Faller proposes three lines of action to counter US rivals. The first strategy consists of “increasing” US presence in the region by strengthening its alliances. “We will take advantage of our bilateral security assistance programs to enhance regional cooperation.”
As if to confirm this, the documents presented to the Peruvian Congress requesting authorisation for the entry of US troops and military equipment argue that (emphasis my own) “training alongside US forces will help to improve the capabilities and strengthen the operational performance of [Peruvian] Special Forces, boosting their interoperability with NATO systems and doctrine.”
Since as far back as 2019 the Peruvian Army — one of the last remaining institutional backbones in Peru, according to Jalife — has made no bones about its aspirations to join the North Atlantic Treaty Association at some point in the future, despite Peru’s geographic position perched on South America’s Pacific coastline.
NATO already has three partner countries in South America and is on the lookout for more. In 2017, Colombia became one of NATO’s eight global partners, along with Australia, Iraq, Japan, Mongolia, New Zealand, Pakistan and the Republic of Korea. The apparent benefits of membership include interoperability with NATO forces as well as the opportunity to participate in NATO-led operations and missions around the world. Like Colombia, both Brazil and Argentina are also “major non-NATO allies,” a designation awarded by Washington to close allies that have strategic working relationships with the US Armed Forces but are not members of NATO.
NATO is certainly keen to expand its influence in Latin America, especially in the context of the current conflict in Ukraine. In 2019, the US State Department even suggested that Mexico should join the military alliance, despite the country’s long, albeit interrupted, history of neutrality. In 2020, the Atlantic Council even argued that securing Mexico’s membership could be key to keeping the United States, then under Trump’s presidency, “committed” to the Alliance. Between them Brazil (334,000 active military personnel) and Colombia (200,000) alone would contribute more assets to NATO than the European members annexed in the 1990s, according to the the Latin American Strategic Center for Geopolitics (also known as CELAG).
At an event on the sidelines of the 2022 NATO summit in Madrid, King of Spain Felipe VI proposed that Spain could serve as both a bridge and a nexus between NATO and the former Spanish colonies of Latin America — an idea that will no doubt have met with the approval of EU’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell.
A month ago, Colombia’s first left-wing President Gustavo Petro dismayed many of his supporters by committing to strengthen Colombia’s cooperation with NATO in areas such as climate change, human rights, integrity building and cyber defence. As I’ve noted in a previous article, Petro has his hands largely tied when it comes to dealing with the US military, given that Colombia is one of the biggest recipients of US military aid, is home to seven or eight official US military bases and has suffered through a decades-long civil war that is not nearly resolved. But even I was surprised by the extent to which Petro appears to have caved in.
Peru: “The Most Chinese Country in South America,” Until Now
Peru’s Ambassador to China during Pedro Castillo’s government, Luis Quesada, described China as the “most Chinese country in South America.” That was in July last year. At the time, there was even talk of upgrading China’s free trade agreement (FTA) with Peru. China is already Peru’s largest trading partner on both the exports and imports side while Peru is the second largest destination for Chinese investment in Latin America, behind only Brazil. A whopping 32% of Peru’s exports go to China, compared with just 12% to the US.
But according to the report in Hildebrandt en sus trece, citing other documents by Craig Faller, Washington’s soft-power arm USAID will also be playing a part in the US’ counter-offensive against China and Russia in Peru. The notes that USAID is investigating “foreign agents” in Peru, with a particular focus on “unethical” practices by Asian (read: Chinese) multinationals.
The companies that have so far been targeted allegedly include China Railway Tunnel Group ― with whom the Ministry of Transport and Communications recently cancelled an $87 million contract ― and Cosco Shipping, which is under investigation by the Prosecutor’s Office for a landslide at one of the company’s tunnel construction sites at the $3.6 billion Chancay mega-port it is helping to build. Located 50 miles north of Lima, the port is expected to become (in the words of Mercopress news agency) “a colossal infrastructure that will transform the 65,000 people former fishing village into a milestone of China’s increasing trade and influence in Latin America.”
Chinese companies have also invested huge sums in Peru’s mining sector over the past decade and a half. But US and European interest in Latin America’s strategic resources is also on the rise as the race for lithium, copper, cobalt and other elements essential for the so-called “clean” energy transition heats up. In recent months the region’s largest economies have received state visits from both Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholtz and EU Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen, who last week unveiled €10 billion of Global Gateway investments in Latin America and the Caribbean.
As readers may recall, Craig Faller’s successor at the helm of SOUTHCOM, General Laura Richardson, has been explicit about the US government’s intentions to “box out” China and Russia from strategic resources in Latin America. And while Peru may not form part of the Lithium Triangle (Bolivia, Argentina and Chile), it does boast significant deposits of the white metal. By one estimate, it is home to the sixth largest deposits of hard-rock lithium in the world. It is also the world’s second largest producer of copper, zinc and silver, three metals that are also expected to play a major role in supporting renewable energy technologies.
The problem is that Peru’s economy is hugely dependent on Chinese money for its mining industry and infrastructure projects, and that economy is — as Jalife put it — one of the few “fractals” that continue to provide some degree of stability. And while the US and NATO may offer guns and war, they cannot compete with China on investment or trade.
* The US Ambassador to Peru, Lisa Kenna, is a former adviser to former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and a nine-year veteran at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). She almost certainly gave the green light for Castillo’s toppling during a meeting with Peru’s Defense Minister Gustavo Bobbio Rosas the day before (December 6). A retired brigadier general, Bobbio Rosas was appointed defence minister just one day before his meeting with Kenna and was replaced a couple of days later by Jorge Chavez Cresta, a graduate of the West Virginia National Guard and the William J. Perry Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies in Washington. According to a tweet by Peru’s Ministry of Defence, the meeting between Kenna and Bobbio was meant to tackle “issues of bilateral interest.”